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Shortly after the release of Avatar in December and again on Jan. 20, Charlie Rose talked with James Cameron. Below are edited excerpts of their conversations.
Did you have any idea how big Avatar would be?
We didn't see this coming. First of all, there is the critical success, which I certainly was not counting on. I thought it would be spotty at best just because of the history of science fiction. And then the commercial success. We had assumed we would probably come close to making money because we spent a lot.
What, about $230 million?
It was in that very, very general range. I don't want to commit to a number. I figure if the studio wants to announce a number, that's fine. We were actually fairly smart about the marketing. We brought in a number of promotional partners to help hold down the actual out-of-pocket marketing costs. We did that with McDonald's (MCD), Coke Zero (KO), LG, and Panasonic (PC). But even so, we knew we had to perform in the kind of $750 million-plus range to be profitable. And we knew what the negatives were: We didn't have stars, there was no prior art, it wasn't part of a franchise, and it wasn't adapted from a novel or a graphic novel or something that had any hook in the public consciousness. So we had to build all that from scratch. In the back of my mind, I always knew that the one gambit you have when you have a high budget and lots of time is you can make a great movie. And if you can engage an audience, especially a global audience, with a film that sort of transcends language, transcends the immediacy of the pop culture of America, and speaks to more universals of human emotion, human imagination—if you can do that, you can sort of break through and become an event, whatever that means. And I think Avatar did that.
What will it change?
One thing that I can point to right now as a likelihood is that, because of the financial and critical success, filmmakers who were reluctant to jump into making 3D films may be given a kind of permission that they didn't feel they had before—permission from the critical community that a serious filmmaker can do a piece of drama for grown-ups and not an animated film for kids, and they can do it in 3D and they don't have to feel guilty about it or feel that they're committing career suicide.
[Sony (SNE) CEO Sir] Howard Stringer told us a couple of weeks ago that the entire emphasis of Sony at the Consumer Electronics Show was going to be 3D television. And they are gearing up because they helped you make the cameras.
There's an interesting history there because about six or seven months ago I had a closed-door secret presentation to Howard Stringer of a new business venture, and I mapped out what I believed was going to be the future of 3D and how many television sets were going to be entering the home and how there would initially be a dearth of 3D content and blah, blah, blah. I basically mapped out an entire strategy that he promptly announced a week later at the Sony stockholders' meeting. His speech was pretty much culled verbatim from my presentation. So thank you, Howard.
That's the sincerest form of flattery.
A more sincere form would have been to actually make the deal I was proposing.
Is 3D going to revolutionize cinema?
I think 3D will have a part in keeping the cinema experience alive as opposed to watching something on a little screen like a laptop or a small portable device. The home experience was catching up with the theatrical experience and starting to kind of erode it in people's minds as the big, exciting, magical thing that you went to. And I think 3D is a way of getting us back to that.
What's more satisfying, the commercial success or critical success?
I would have to say the commercial success only as a metric of how well the film is communicating. We're reaching people—and we're reaching them in China and Japan and France and Germany and pretty much wherever this film is playing.
Someone said that Spielberg is about awe, and you are about romance.
I can't help myself. I'm romantic. Romance with teeth, you know.
Someone also said you set out to a make a blockbuster, and you made a chick flick.
That was true of Titanic, and it may be true of Avatar. This film is a romance. It's an alien romance. Guy falls in love with a 10-foot-tall, hot blue chick on another planet.
Reviewers have noted a reference almost to Iraq in terms of the war and terror in the film.
I wrote this thing before the Iraq war, but it lined up beautifully, because I was making references in the first script I wrote to Vietnam and all the way back to the colonial period in the Americas. You know, human history is a series of invasions. One group invades another group. The militarily superior takes over and destroys the other culture, and so on. And we're seeing that in this film, but we're seeing it from the standpoint of the people who are getting invaded. And I think anybody who's going to take a position that a war is a right and moral path should understand what it feels like when it's an aggressive war and what it feels like to be invaded. We felt it here with 9/11.
And you believe in just wars as President Obama expressed in his Nobel acceptance speech?
Yes, I believe in just wars. But I think we have to make the distinction, and that's where we as citizens in a democratic society have to be on our toes and have to be well-informed and have to have a voice.
Do you expect this to be the largest-grossing film ever made?
I think it will be as of this week, actually. It's pretty much a done deal, unless a comet hits the earth.
What do you think it'll make overall at the end?
It's hard to predict, but I think we'll definitely get past $2 billion.
And if you win the Academy Award...
I have to get nominated first. I don't like to put a curse on it by even talking about it.
If you win, what will be bigger than "King of the World," which was your self-description when Titanic swept the boards? King of Pandora?
You know, that was my kind of bone-headed attempt to connect with fans of Titanic, since it was such a prominent line in the film. But I'm not saying this from a kind of been-there, done-that position, but from a position of somebody who desperately does not like to stand up in front of large crowds of people. And pretty much the biggest crowd of people that Hollywood knows how to assemble for any moment of human interaction is the Academy Award audience of a billion people. I remember thinking at the moment they were opening the envelope [when Titanic was nominated]: "Please don't let it be us. Please don't let it be me." And you get to that place. You really do. It's funny. It's almost more trouble than it's worth. And having done it already, I kind of feel like, "Well, Avatar doesn't need this." But on the other hand, I see the pride on the part of my editors and my effects people and my actors. And I think, "You know what, this can't be bad."