Sure, it’ll be over a decade in between installments of Avatar, but the team behind the epic blockbusters aren’t too worried about it.
“There are huge time periods between Jumanji and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and huge time periods between Star Wars and [the new Star Wars trilogy],” producer Jon Landau told SYFY WIRE via telephone Wednesday (Landau is currently promoting Alita: Battle Angel). “We opened up a year and a half ago a themed land at Walt Disney World around Pandora: The World of Avatar, and it is doing record business for Disney.”
Upon its release in December 2009, Avatar was the highest grossing film of all time, with $2.78 billion in box office earnings worldwide. Cameron said then he wanted to further explore the world of Pandora and announced plans for a sequel. That sequel eventually turned into three additional films, shot simultaneously in the Volume, a groundbreaking virtual space Cameron would enlist Weta Digital to transform into the immersive fantasy landscapes of the series. But as Alita got greenlit by Fox and Cameron’s attention was distracted by a series of smaller projects, the release date for those films got pushed back, with the first of the proposed sequels arriving in 2020, some 11 years after the original.
Since then, superhero movies, especially those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have become massively popular worldwide, and Star Wars has regained its footing as one of the most lucrative and beloved franchises in cinema history. Conversely, Avatar has seemed to fall behind those series — and others, like Harry Potter and its spinoff, Fantastic Beasts — in terms of its cultural footprint. But Landau insisted that people are just as in love with Avatar as they were in 2009, evidenced by their interest in that recent Disneyworld attraction.
“People want to return to the world of Pandora,” he said. “They want to return with these characters. So for us, it was never about meeting a timeline to do a sequel. It was about getting scripts that Jim was happy with that cover all the stories we want to tell, not just the first one, not just the second one, not just the third one, all four scripts had to reach a point that we were happy with and Jim was happy with before we proceeded. But audiences still tell us that there's a yearning to go back to these stories.”
Landau added, “Cirque du Soleil has just been touring a show that has been seen by over 3 million people in arenas around the world because people want to go back to this story.”
While it remains to be seen whether that interest in extra-theatrical Avatar experiences will translate once again to box office gold for Cameron and his collaborators, another question mark hanging over their heads is how willing its future distributor will be to bankroll what will be a considerable cost for each of the films.
Although it broke records upon release, the original film cost in excess of $230 million, and the sequels are rumored to cost at least $1 billion altogether — a hefty price tag for what feels like less than a sure thing. Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox, Avatar’s original distributor, puts all of that studio’s upcoming projects on their radar for approval/ endorsement, and those delays may have inadvertently exposed Cameron to a level of oversight that he wouldn’t have needed to worry about had the films gone into production a few years earlier.
Though Landau admitted that he and Cameron were perfectly happy teaming with Fox once again, he said that their fledgling partnership with Disney via The World of Avatar hinted at positive things for their ambitious plans for the franchise.
“Jim and I have been in the Fox family for years, and we're sorry to see them make the decision to sell the company. But if we were going to sell the company, there's no better company than we can imagine selling it to than Disney,” he said.
“What Disney does in terms of their brands, in terms of their franchises is phenomenal," Landau added. We’ve had the pleasure of working with them very closely on this park, where they got to know us and we got to know them. So we're looking forward, whenever the closure happens, to moving without losing a step.”
In fact, Landau says that when it comes to technology, the long delay — and the production of Alita — actually enhanced their ability to further immerse audiences in Pandora.
"What I don't think I foresaw is that Alita and what we've now learned on Alita would inform the sequels as much as it's going to," Landau said. "Weta Digital doesn't stand on the laurels of their past. They are always looking at cutting edge and breaking new ground. And when we got into doing Alita and the facial close-ups on a character with human-like skin and that type of thing, they really determined that it was time to change their pipeline. Caesar [from Planet of the Apes] had been done really on the Avatar pipeline. Now they took that and they're changing internally. We went from a single definition base rig on the first Avatar to two high-definition face rigs capturing a facial performance."
Alita: Battle Angel opens in theaters nationwide Friday, Feb. 15. The first Avatar sequel is set for release in theaters on Dec. 18, 2020.