James Cameron on the New Market Challenges Facing ‘Avatar 2’: ‘I Thought We Were Dead’ (Exclusive Video)

The filmmaker also offers his own divergent hypothesis on why the theatrical experience is unique

Filmmaker James Cameron is under no illusion that the marketplace in which “Avatar: The Way of Water” is being released is vastly different from the one in which the first “Avatar” became the highest-grossing film of all time, and admits that when the pandemic hit, he feared the long-awaited sequel might be doomed.

“I thought we were dead,” he told TheWrap as part of our Wrap Magazine cover story on the making of “The Way of Water,” in an interview conducted ahead of the sequel’s release.

“You think of all the assaults on the theatrical business and how many times it’s sort of been prophesied that it was doomed, starting with the advent of television in the late ‘50s, you know, movies were dead. And then with VHS and Betamax movies were dead, and then with cable movies were dead. But movies didn’t die. Movies died the day we could no longer gather. We couldn’t be in the same room together, and it’s taken awhile for them to come back. We’re coming up on three years on, and we’re back to, you know, different estimates give a different number, but somewhere between 75% and 85%. And it varies based on what’s surging where and what country and all that sort of thing, so that’s concerning. So an expensive movie that – I mean, 25% could be our entire margin that makes a film like this profitable, right? So yeah, that’s concerning.”

Cameron added that he had no choice but to soldier on. “But what are we gonna do? Stop? No. If I’m a dinosaur, I’m gonna get killed by the comet. I’m not gonna just give up.”

The Oscar-winning director said that while “Avatar: The Way of Water” was composed to be seen on the big screen, he’s not worried about the film losing its effect once it goes to home video and is streaming on Disney+.

“You compose for the big screen, you compose in scope composition and so on. You move the camera, you create a lot of detail, it still plays on video, it just doesn’t work the other way around as well,” he said. “When you compose for video, you put it on the big screen, it feels like it was composed for video. So that’s why I like to start with the best and brightest and biggest formats available, and then it can always be moved off onto smaller platforms and it’s gonna work just fine. And I also enjoy that. I enjoy that transportive form of entertainment.”

It’s at this point that Cameron offered his own hypothesis on why the movie theater experience is unlike any other, and he acknowledged it diverges from some common opinions on the matter.

“I have a hypothesis about it that diverges a bit from common wisdom. Common wisdom is we all like to get together in a big communal experience. I think that’s horseshit, frankly,” he said. “I don’t think we rush to the theater and pay for the parking and every other damn thing so that we can listen to some guy over here farting and somebody over here coughing and everybody munching on their popcorn. It’s like, screw all of those people, they’re kind of in my way. I want to have a direct relationship with this bigger thing, right?”

Cameron says what’s unique about the theater experience is giving over control.

“What those people are doing for me is creating a scenario in which I have no control. I can’t just pick up the remote and stop it because of my social contract with everybody else there,” he said. “And neither can anybody else. It’s making the decision consciously to have an experience over which you have no control, knowing that it will flood into you with greater impact. Whatever that journey is, whether it’s a comedy, whether it’s a drama, adventure, whatever, it is gonna hit you harder.”

That said, Cameron also acknowledges that more and more, people are only ceding that control for something they feel predisposed to liking.

“And people only turn up the volume like that and sacrifice their ability to multitask for certain things. That’s why we’re getting down to proven IP. Only proven IP is succeeding out there right now,” Cameron said. “If it’s some new independent thing coming up, it doesn’t have as much of a chance and it’s better off streaming or debuting at the festivals and coming to streaming, unfortunately that’s just kind of the way it’s working out. Fortunately for us, that’s what we do. So my theory is that the films that we want to make are still gonna play because they’re either proven IP or were a proven brand enough that we can get an audience. That’s just my hypothesis, for what it’s worth.”

Read TheWrap’s full “Avatar: The Way of Water” cover story here. The film is now playing exclusively in theaters.