James Cameron Calls Avatar: The Way Of Water 'The Worst Business Case In Movie History'

James Cameron remains one of the film industry's biggest technological innovators and a titan-level director that is obsessed with pushing the medium to its limits. What makes him truly great as a populist filmmaker is that he always knows how to properly sell a humane story that makes full use of that ambitious appetite for cutting-edge technological prowess.

His career is long and critically acclaimed, but for my money, there's no better embodiment of Cameron's wacky and imaginative vision for the future of cinema than his 2009 blockbuster, "Avatar." It went on to make $2.7 billion in the box office, whisking viewers away into the world of Pandora through IMAX 3D screens and the finest blend of live-action and CG animation that clearly stands the test of time — as this year's re-release box office numbers prove.

This December, Cameron finally makes his return to the big screen with a sequel that has been over a decade in the making, "Avatar: The Way of Water." With a runtime that's over three hours long, this cinematic epic will bring audiences back into the world of Pandora and also measure interest for three other sequels that Cameron wishes to make and finalize his overarching story of humankind's relationship with the Na'vi people.

Interestingly, even though Cameron is one of our most esteemed living filmmakers, his chances of franchising "Avatar" to his grand vision became more of a gamble than one would expect. This week, GQ profiled James Cameron and asked him about his return to the big screen and the long, complex road to creating "Avatar: The Way of Water," in which he describes his latest film as "the worst business case in movie history."

How expensive? 'Very f***ing'

Production started on "Avatar: The Way of Water" back in 2013. Cameron, the perfectionist he is, knew that an "Avatar" sequel would require starting everything from scratch. The title of the sequel is not just a flashy catchphrase — water is a large part of this film's production and a huge motif of the story. Though Pandora is mainly portrayed in detailed CG animation, Cameron wanted to authentically mo-cap his actors' scenes underwater, returning to some concepts he established in "The Abyss" with brand new context. The GQ profile runs through all the troubles Cameron had developing new AI systems and cameras needed to accomplish his vision:

"Nothing would work the first time Cameron and the production tried it. Or the second. Or usually the third. One day in Wellington, New Zealand, where Cameron was finishing the film, he showed me a single effects shot, numbered 405. 'That means there's been 405 versions of this before it gets to me,' he said. Cameron has been working on the movie since 2013; it was due out years ago. In September, he still wasn't done."

The years of scrapped concepts and experimentations have inflated the budget of "The Way of Water" to an alarming degree. When asked just how expensive his sequel's budget was, Cameron coyly answered "Very f***ing," going on to describe the film as "the worst business case in movie history." Cameron claims the minimum goal of profitability for his "Avatar" sequel is at a drastic level. "You have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history," he explained. "That's your threshold. That's your break even."

Don't bet against James Cameron

It might sound like Cameron's high ambition has put himself into an odd, difficult corner. Some film fans have questioned the cultural impact of "Avatar" as time has distanced us from the original 2009 film, but this is not exactly the first time (nor will it be the last) Cameron has been faced with seemingly impossible odds. As GQ points out, Cameron's previous successes, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "True Lies," and "Titanic" were all "among the most expensive films ever made at the time of their release." Cameron went on to explain his mentality with those previous efforts:

"I used to be really defensive about [expensive budgets] because it was always the first thing anybody would mention, and now I'm like, if I can make a business case to spend a billion dollars on a movie, I will f***ing do it. Do you want to know why? Because we don't put it all on a pile and light it on fire. We give it to people. If the studio agrees and thinks it's a good investment, as opposed to buying an oil lease off of the north of Scotland, which somebody would think was a good investment, why not do it?"

The maverick director is certainly right about that. Give Cameron an astronomical budget and he will make sure that every dollar shows on that screen. He's the king of the box office for a reason — even though his films present an extreme amount of financial risk, one cannot deny that the numbers have been there for him. Despite all those bets against him, James Cameron has turned a profit every single time.

"Avatar: The Way of Water" releases in theaters on December 16, 2022.