Untangling James Cameron's Ever-Shifting 'Avatar' Release Dates

Avatar-Publicity Still-H 2019
20th Century Fox/Photofest
In another world, 'Avatar 2' was released on its original schedule ... five years ago.

The four upcoming sequels to James Cameron's Avatar have been pushed back once again. Disney, which now controls the franchise following its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, announced Tuesday that the release date for Avatar 2 has been moved back a year to Dec. 17, 2021 — and the three movies that follow it have been delayed, as well.

If there’s one thing that’s been entirely consistent about Avatar sequels since their initial announcement, it’s that they’re entirely inconsistent in terms of release dates. And, for that matter, how many sequels there are actually going to be.

Originally, the plan was for Cameron to create two follow-ups from the 2009 movie; even before the first film was complete, the filmmaker talked about his original intent for the series to be a trilogy. In October 2010, almost a year after Avatar’s release, Cameron officially announced the two sequels, dated for 2014 and 2015, respectively. A year later, he was still talking about the follow-ups as two movies, and already talking about shooting them at a higher frame rate — 48 and 60 frames per second — as well as in 3D, like the original movie.

The first sign that things weren’t going according to plan appeared in 2012, when producer Jon Landau suggested that production concerns could push the release dates back. “I think 2014 will be a tough date to make,” he said, adding, “It’s about getting it right.” For those who don’t think that 2012 was a long time ago, Landau also said at the time that Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 needed to have clear distinctions, despite being made simultaneously. "That's where movies fall into trouble — when they try to say: 'You know what? It's really one movie and there's an intermission' — so we want each one to be a stand-alone movie,” said the producer, unable to imagine a world where Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame existed.

Another sign that things weren’t going to go as planned came later that year, when Cameron started talking about a fourth movie in the series, although he went back and forth over whether or not such a project was real, and if it was real, whether or not it would be a prequel. While that might have sounded as if matters were getting out of hand, at least it wasn’t as if Cameron was buying 2,500 acres of land in New Zealand with the ambition of shooting the movies there, however many there may be. Oh, wait — that’s exactly what he did. By the end of 2013, the New Zealand government announced the news everyone had long suspected: There would be three more Avatar movies, all shot in the country.

As this announcement was made in December 2013, it was clear that Avatar 2 was definitely not going to make that original 2014 release date. In fact, given that the pics were ”just starting to be written” three months earlier, it was no surprise that Fox had moved back the release date until December 2016, a date that would later be pushed back another year because, as Cameron explained, “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. … We're writing three simultaneously. And we've done that so that everything tracks throughout the three films. We're not just going to do one and then make up another one and another one after that.”

By April 2016, things had changed again: Now, there would be four sequels to the original Avatar, with the first to be released in December 2018 and with subsequent releases scheduled for 2020, 2022 and 2023. Less than a year later, Cameron was telling an interviewer, “Well, 2018 is not happening.”

A month after that interview, Fox unveiled new, definitely official, release dates for the films: Dec. 18, 2020; Dec. 17, 2021; Dec. 20, 2024; and Dec. 19, 2025. Finally, audiences knew that new Avatar was definitively scheduled and definitely wouldn’t be moving again… Unless, say, the studio releasing the pics got swallowed up by Disney, pushing them back again.

It’s notable that the latest schedule shift for the Avatar movies is inconsistent: Avatar 2 and Avatar 4 are only getting move back a year each, with Avatar 3 and Avatar 5 both getting pushed back two years, creating a consistent release schedule every two years that alternates with planned Star Wars movies. It’s a schedule that makes sense for Disney, if not necessarily for Cameron, who presumably created the original, irregular schedule for story-related reasons.

If that’s the case, though, he shouldn’t feel too perturbed; after all, given the history of the Avatar sequels to date, it’s a relatively safe bet to assume there are at least a couple more release date changes in store before Avatar 2 hits theaters. Who knew that Avatar movies were the real Unobtainium we were searching for all along?