The many delays of the Avatar sequels

Write James Cameron off at your peril. Even by the notoriously demanding director's standards, he’s set himself quite the mountain to scale with his four Avatar follow-ups, argues Simon Brew.

avatar behind the scenes

Write James Cameron off at your peril. Even by the notoriously demanding director’s standards, he’s set himself quite the mountain to scale with his four Avatar follow-ups, argues Simon Brew.

Avatar 3 concept art

There was a period in the 1980s where filmmaker James Cameron’s output was incredibly proficient. Between 1984 and 1989, he wrote and directed three sizeable undertakings – The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss, and would launch into the 90s with Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies in the first half of the decade.

Yet in more recent times, that output has slowed. He’s certainly been busy, but the films he’s directed have been fewer in number.

The turning point, on paper at least, was the exhausting and exhaustive shoot for passion project Titanic. Released in 1997, it became the biggest film of all time, winning 11 Oscars for good measure. Cameron would spend the next decade primarily making documentary features, whilst also putting his next project together. That’d be 2009’s Avatar, that overcame snide accusations of being the 1992 animated film Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, just blue and more expensive. It too would go on to be the biggest film of all time (a crown it recently reseized from Avengers: Endgame).

It wasn’t long after the release of Avatar that Cameron confirmed there were plans to revisit the incredible alien world of Pandora that he’d brought to the screen in the film. In the run up to the movie’s release even, he was talking of at least two follow-ups. By 2010 – with over $2bn banked – he confirmed that he was indeed embarking on a sequel. This was just the beginning.

Over a decade later, we’re still waiting for it. What, then, has been the delay? Well, a few things.


The most overt reason we’re still waiting is that the Avatar sequels project has continued to exponentially grow as Cameron and his team got into the guts of actually writing the movies. It’s a whole lot more than one single follow-up now.

Tracking back over time, Avatar 2 was confirmed all the way back in 2011, with a release date of December 2014. Not just that, Cameron was intending to shoot a third film back-to-back, with Avatar 3 set for the end of 2015. At that stage, writing was underway.

The plan was changing within months of that announcement though.

Avatar 2 set

Come spring of 2012, there was first of all affirmation that Cameron was committing to making the Avatar as his next project. Turns out this hadn’t been a definite thing, no matter how much Fox was keen to push a sequel.

This confirmation in turn had a knock-on for another movie he’d been working on for some time. That’d be the big screen adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel, a project he’d instead produce – and get involved with right to the level of being part of its press tour – and bring in Robert Rodriguez to direct (Spy Kids, Sin City). Even that would still take many years to come to fruition, finally arriving in early 2019.

An aside: as it’d happen, Alita would be one of two major films that Cameron would produce and take a hands-on interest in during the development and production of the new Avatar films. He’d be lured back to the Terminator series he of course started for 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, a movie that was designed to launch a trilogy but, well, didn’t.

Alita: Battle Angel

Pushed back

Back to Avatar, though. Come May 2012, we got our first talk of release delays. Producer Jon Landau was openly already casting doubt in interviews as to whether the first sequel could hit a 2014 date, confirming that whilst pre-production had begun and work on underwater performance capture technologies was happening, that it was already looking tricky for the film to be finished by the end of 2014. Landau was not incorrect.

The following years would play out a pattern of the closer a new Avatar film got, the further away it soon became. But then, inevitably for a Cameron blockbuster, the infrastructure and technology behind the scenes was increasingly complex. These films were clearly going to be visually and technologically ambitious.

The plan to set the second film underwater for instance presented a whole new suite of challenges, and the more sequels that Cameron planned to shoot back to back, the more scripts needed writing and the more pre-production work needed to be undertaken before a frame of digital footage could be shot.

The delays kept coming as all this was being pieced together. Come the start of 2015, filming still hadn’t begun, with Cameron this time confirming to The Hollywood Reporter that the release date was now at the end of 2017. At that stage, he was also planning to have the screenplays for the three planned movies complete by the end of January 2015, explaining that “There’s a layer of complexity in getting the story to work as a saga across three films that you don’t get when you’re making a stand-alone film

A year later, filming still hadn’t begun though, and Fox admitted in January 2016 that, nope, Avatar 2 wasn’t going to be ready in time for the end of 2017 either. Work was still going on putting soundstages together in New Zealand ready for production, and the digital development was ongoing.

Then, by spring of 2016, Cameron popped another sizeable spanner in the works when he made the announcement he was now making four Avatar sequels, rather than three. The first? It’d now be along in December 2018, the others following in 2020, 2022 and 2023.

Yet at the time of this article first being published, it’s spring of 2021. We should, by that schedule, be half-way through the quartet of sequels. It’s not a sizeable spoiler to reveal that more delays through were around the corner.

Kate Winslet on Avatar 2 set

Now when?

By this stage, whilst there were timescales being mentioned by both Fox and James Cameron, the studio was now reluctant to offer an exact release date for even one of the new Avatar films.

A sizeable challenge just in terms of scheduling had popped up for a start, as in the period since Cameron announced Avatar 2, Disney had bought Lucasfilm (in 2012) and started making Star Wars movies (the first, The Force Awakens, arriving in 2015), that were themselves becoming winter’s biggest box office attractions. Just the slots that Avatar wanted.

In fact, under Disney’s stewardship – all as we waited for a single Avatar sequel – the Star Wars cinematic franchise rose and stumbled across five brand new films, with the series now being rested ahead of the next movie, Rogue Squadron, which is set for Christmas 2023 (Patty Jenkins is directing that one).

It’s not the only Disney move that’s affected Cameron’s sequels either. In 2017, the Mouse House confirmed it was intended to buy out 21st Century Fox, and in turn the 20th Century Fox film studio. The deal was finally ratified in 2019, and in a turn of events, Disney now owned Avatar.

Yet against the backdrop of all of this, filming on the sequels was finally underway.


Shooting finally began on what’d turned into an even more ambitious production than expected in the autumn of 2017, and ran through until the end of 2018 initially for the performance capture material that Cameron needed. It was, of course, going to take a good year or two to take that material and turn it into a final movie in extensive post-production. Then there was the small matter of the live action footage that was required, with the first block of that completed in 2019, and the second delayed when Covid hit in early 2020. It would finally get underway in June 2020, wrapping up a few months later in the autumn.

That delay, as you might expect, played further havoc with the release date. Even ahead of the pandemic hitting, Disney had announced further delays to the sequels in spring of 2019. It gave more solid release dates than we’d had for a while at that point too, announcing Avatar 2 for December 2021, and the further sequels in December 2023, 2025 and 2027.

Zhangjiajie National Forest park is a popular tourist destination in the Hunan province, home to striking sandstone and quartz cliffs, known for inspiring the fictional world of ‘Pandora’ in James Cameron’s film, ‘Avatar’. (Photo: Lintao Zhang)

But delay number eight was then confirmed following the strike of the pandemic, which brings us – in release date terms – up to date. At the moment, the plan is for Avatar 2 to finally be in cinemas on Friday 16th December 2022. Ironically for a film that’s supposed to be set underwater, at the time of writing it’s scheduled against Warner Bros’ sequel Aquaman 2. Expect one of those two films to budge.

The test

Finally, it feels like the new films are getting closer, rather than further away.

Disney has now scheduled the four Avatar sequels to be in alternate years to further Star Wars adventures, in 2024, 2026 and 2028. Save for small bits of inevitable wrap-up work, and bits of footage here and there that Cameron will need to jigsaw his final cut together, the actual core filming segment of at least the first two movies is now complete. Over a decade since the first movie hit, Avatar 2 at least is just over a year away.

Now, though, comes perhaps an even bigger challenge. The small matter of getting people interested in seeing the films after all this time.

It doesn’t take long bashing search terms into Google to find a host of articles questioning if anyone cares about Avatar anymore (they’ve been coming for years, in fact). It’s not an unreasonable question either. That said, this has been something of a cycle James Cameron has been through since he embarked on making Titanic.

Avatar 2 set

The press cycle on that one suggested a disaster in more than one sense, and when the budget ballooned, there was no way – went the argument – that the film could possibly recoup its investment. Cameron had the last laugh there, with over $2bn banked from cinemas alone.

With Avatar, there was even more cynicism, to the point where a special ‘Avatar day’ was organised months ahead of the original movie’s release. This gave fans the chance to see 15 minutes of material in cinemas around the world – assuming they could get a ticket – but the response was muddled, which didn’t seem to help. The look of it certainly blew people away – and it’s easy to forget just what an impact the visuals made in cinemas back in 2009 – but quibbles arose over what looked like the romance at the heart of the film.

Even in the weeks up to the film’s release, as Cameron and his cast and crew travelled the world on an extensive press tour to promote it, nobody quite knew how this was all going to play out. And then of course it hit big: five-star reviews (and there were lots of them), a box office haul like no other before it, and Oscar nominations aplenty. All tied to 3D technology too, that Cameron had put at the heart of his film.

Who would suggest he couldn’t pull all this off again?

Out of sight?

Still, against this, there’s been the gnawing sense that a failure to expand the Avatar universe in the aftermath of the original movie’s incredible success – er, notwithstanding a Cirque du Soleil show that debuted in 2015 – has meant that the series won’t be in the slightest bit fresh in audience’s minds. Do people go back and watch the original even, in the way they might with some of Cameron’s earlier films?

On top of that, consider how Marvel has – in normal times – two to three movies a year to keep interest in its Cinematic Universe vibrant and alive. Had Avatar 2 landed on time in 2014, that’d still be a five-year gap it had to navigate, and nothing outside of rewatchings of the original movie to keep audiences invested. With each passing year, it was going to be a little bit harder to lure people back.

The novelty of the technology – that was very much part of the launch story for the original film – has passed too. Over half of Avatar’s original box office admissions came from 3D ticket sales, which in turn buoyed its gross thanks to the premium pricing those seats attracted. It’s hard to see how it’ll get a similar bounce, although don’t be surprised if IMAX screenings pick up a good deal of that slack.

Still, the latest 3D boom – so wrapped up in the success of the first film – has been and very much gone. Hollywood didn’t take long to murder that particular golden goose, and now just a handful of films are widely released in the format. Granted, that’s another story (not least because 3D appears to be cyclical in cinema history), but for the purposes of this tale whilst James Cameron at one stage was toying with glasses-free 3D for his new films, he’s since suggested the tech isn’t quite there. When the first sequel finally arrives, it’s got to stand firmly on its own blue feet.

The billion dollar gamble

There’s little getting around that the up-front commitment to making four sequels here is a massive risk. Perhaps the biggest gamble of the moment in blockbuster cinema. Appreciating it was a decision that Disney inherited, it’s estimated to cost $1bn to make the four movies by the time they’re all completed (before marketing), and few could call just how they’re going to go down. Just half the success of the first film will comfortably do of course, but at this stage in the cycle, that still feels like a very high bar.

Nonetheless, it was understandable that 20th Century Fox would commit to the project, given that Cameron has twice delivered for the studio the biggest film ever at the box office (and he’d made his last three dramatic features for the studio). Would Disney had made a similar call? It’s a moot point now, although it does play to the studio’s strategy of making fewer theatrical movies, but making them bigger.

And these will certainly be big.

Whatever doubts swirl about the new Avatar films, there’s little argument that Cameron will make them gigantic spectacles, and that he’ll be putting on screen a scale of film that few – if any – modern filmmaker could muster. Who would even attempt anything like this, after all?

It certainly doesn’t help that there’s been a multitude of delays of course, and what would have been closer to a sure-fire success back in, say, 2014, now looks far vaguer in the current cinema climate.

Can Cameron pull off a result again, or will his luck run out? Given the paucity of filmmakers putting such huge films together in such an individual way, it’s hard not to yearn for the former. Still, here we are again, in the build up to one of his movies, with a growing sense that this might be the one that trips him up. The answers will finally start arriving in just over 18 months…

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