Bob Iger and James Cameron: Can the King of Hollywood Manage the King of the World?

James Cameron-Report 3 composite-H 2019
As Cameron's 'Avatar' sequels move from Fox to Disney as part of the $71 billion merger, they join a crowded film release slate. "We're very sad the Murdochs chose to sell the company," says franchise producer Jon Landau. "But if they're going to sell the company, there's nobody better than Disney to sell it to."

In 1997, when James Cameron needed six more months than planned to finish Titanic, he bumped into Rupert Murdoch on the Fox lot, apologized about the delays on the set and promised the mogul his costly disaster epic would be “good.” “It better be a damn sight better than good,” Murdoch told Cameron, ultimately granting his studio’s swaggering star filmmaker the extra time he wanted, a decision that paid off in 11 Oscars and nearly $2.2 billion in global box office and the "I'm the king of the world" speech.

Cameron’s relationship with the Murdochs was unusually strong, forged on shared ambition and outsized successes, beginning with Cameron’s direction of Aliens in 1986, which gave Rupert his first major hit after buying the studio, and culminating in the 2009 release of Avatar, which remains the highest grossing film of all time at $2.7 billion worldwide.

Now, days after Disney closed its $71.3 billion Fox deal, the Avatar director finds himself in business on the sequels with a very different company, one where intellectual properties like Star Wars and Marvel are valued higher than any star, and where the kind of leeway he enjoyed with the Murdochs is rare.

"We're very sad the Murdochs chose to sell the company," says Cameron's producer at Lightstorm Entertainment, Jon Landau. "But if they're going to sell the company, there's nobody better than Disney to sell it to. They get Avatar in terms of what its potential is, not just as a movie but as a franchise."

Landau's optimism comes thanks to years of experience he and Cameron already have working with Disney: In 2011, CEO Bob Iger approached Cameron about creating an Avatar land in the conglomerate's theme parks. After signing a roughly $500 million licensing agreement with Lightstorm in 2014, Disney opened Pandora — The World of Avatar, a 12-acre area at Animal Kingdom in Florida, with a 3D flight simulator, boat attraction, retail and restaurants.

There are now four Avatar film sequels in the works that Cameron has delayed numerous times to finish the scripts and develop the technologically intensive production pipeline, which includes the introduction of underwater motion capture photography.

The first Avatar sequel was originally slated for release in 2014 but is now expected to hit theaters Dec. 18, 2020, 11 years to the day after the original.That date may shift yet again, as Avatar fits in around its new studio's other franchises — Disney's release calendar has an untitled Disney live-action film due Dec. 23, 2020. (The other Avatar sequels are slated for Dec. 17, 2021, Dec. 20, 2024, and Dec. 19, 2025.)

Though Lightstorm and Disney met to discuss their licensing deal and theme park business in recent months, Federal Trade Commission rules prevented the companies from delving into topics related to the studio acquisition, and Landau says there have not yet been any discussions about release dates since the deal closed.

"We are moving forward on the production the same way we were last week," says Landau of life after the merger. The Avatar sequels are being shot concurrently, with Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana reprising their roles. In her new position at Disney, 20th Century Fox Film vice chairman Emma Watts is expected to continue to oversee the Avatar sequels.

Landau adds, "We have a great long-standing relationship with Emma and respect her."

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.