James Cameron Considers Teaming With China for 'Avatar' Sequels (Q&A)

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As "Titanic 3D" triumphs at the local box office, the globe-trotting director explored the future of Chinese co-productions while attending the Beijing Film Festival.

China has certainly been good to James Cameron. Avatar became the country’s all-time box off office champ in 2010, and the recent release of Titanic 3D had the largest opening ever in China, taking in $58 million in its first weekend.Cameron will be strengthening his relationship with China this week as a guest of the Beijing International Film Festival, which kicked off on Monday and wraps Saturday. Cameron took time out from a busy schedule to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the future of Chinese-co-productions, how he beat the U.S. government to the bottom of the ocean, and the spirit of adventure that drives his life and his work.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to take part in the Beijing International Film Festival?

James Cameron: The trip has been planned for about a year, so it was in the works well before this phenomenal success of Titanic 3D. Although I did anticipate that China would be a strong market for the film, because we had been very strong here in 1997, vastly outperforming our expectations on a relatively small number of screens. And also, because of the success of Avatar, I knew it was a major 3D market.  So I put together the fact that the Chinese audience seemed to really like the movie Titanic and that they’re huge 3D fans, and I assumed we’d do well here – nothing like this though. So the trip was planned back then. But there are multifold reasons for me to be here now. We’re trying to jam a lot into one trip. I’m here as the co-chairman of CPG – Cameron Pace Group – to talk about 3D production, both for broadcast and for film. There are some meetings around that. Then, we’re having some Avatar 2 and 3 Chinese co-production discussions.

THR: Really? Is this something you’re pursuing?

Cameron: It’s still very exploratory. We’re doing some meetings. We’re just looking to see if it might make sense – in terms of what would be required of us and what we would get in return. Because again, this is a major market. I think by the time Avatar 2 and 3 come out, China could easily be the same size market as the United States, which is crazy. It’s not something we anticipated even five years ago. But it totally makes sense when you’re sitting here in Beijing and you see how they’re basically skipping the latter part of the 20th century and going straight to the 21st century, with installation of 3D compliant digital theaters in towns that never even had a movie theater before. They’re just skipping film completely. There’s no film in their film business – which is pretty cool. And you know, it was the same story with the telcos here. They just skipped what didn’t really work and went straight to what does work now. So that’s exciting. It’s an exciting market. And obviously I’m doing a little bit of press around Titanic 3D, but frankly, we don’t really need to do anything. It launched pretty well without me being here at all, so I don’t think I’m adding much to the equation.

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THR: You really believe the Chinese film market might soon equal or surpass that of the U.S.?

Cameron: It seems reasonable, given the number of counties and townships that don’t have a theater at all right now and with the rate of their GDP growth and growing middle class, as those towns get theaters, we’re going to go from whatever it is, 9,000 theaters now, to 20,000 theaters just in China. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘them.’ But it’s becoming a great place for Hollywood filmmakers to show their films. The standards are relaxing, more films are being included and the percentage that one can take out of China is now a reasonable number. It could be even better but at least it’s now a reasonable number, considering that they bear all the distribution expenses here.

THR: If half of the global box office is eventually Chinese, how does that change the equation for a global filmmaker like yourself?

Cameron: The beauty of it for me, is that it doesn’t change anything [Laughs]. Apparently, I’ve already been doing it. Avatar was huge here. Titanic was huge here. China is the biggest market for both of those films outside of the U.S. So I guess I don’t really need to do anything different from what I’m already doing. If I suddenly switched to making a contemporary rom-com set in Seattle, that’s not going to play well here. But as long as I keep doing these epic, pageant kind of stories, whether they’re set in the past or set in the future, and keep focusing on highly recognizable universal human relationships and stories that come from the heart, I don’t think I’m going to have to make any adjustments. The Chinese are very interested in emotional filmmaking. Their films are extremely emotional. And I can relate to that. When I watch the best of Chinese cinema – setting aside the wushu stuff with all the fighting, which is great and I love it from a technical filmmaking perspective, but generally speaking it’s not very emotional – it’s very emotional filmmaking, about families, relationships, men and women, mothers and daughters. So I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.Titanic made two-thirds of its money internationally. Avatar made three-quarters – and three-quarters of that on 3D screens, when it was still a nascent market. So I think I just keep doing what I’m doing. It seems pretty straightforward.

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THR: What do you think it will mean for the industry as a whole though, that Hollywood might soon be making movies for a predominantly foreign – namely, Chinese – audience?

Cameron: I don’t think that people should consider it that way. It’s not like Hollywood consists only of Americans. You know, I’m Canadian. Look at the people in Hollywood – they’re from France, Germany, England, Australia, China and so on. Hollywood is a place that the world has sort of voted to be the place where we make movies for the rest of the world, as opposed to individual country’s film industries, which are making films in their language for their own markets, with some bleed out. But we all know that if you really want to make movies for global consumption you go to Hollywood, but you can come from anywhere to do it. And I think that’s just going to continue, no matter how the global pie gets sliced up. Look, Chinese cinema is spectacular, and we could all learn from it. But I think Hollywood is an interesting way for them to get around their own internal guidelines, because there’s a lot that they’re not allowed to make here. They’re not allowed to make science fiction films, I’m told. But they can partner with Hollywood studios or they can import Avatar [laughs].

THR: You mentioned that China has been leading the way in the expansion of 3D. As the great champion of 3D, how do you assess the medium’s current state of development?

Cameron: There are some countries that have been quite aggressive with 3D. Even back when we were rolling up to Avatar, France was aggressive. And Russia, especially, was very aggressive. But China, I think they scrambled to put in 300 or 400 theaters in the weeks just leading up to the release of Avatar. So nobody was more aggressive than China. I think it helped that they were right at that cusp of building out a national infrastructure, where in the other places, such as France for example, they were having to replace existing infrastructure.

THR: Throughout your career you’ve always pushed the cutting edge of movie making technology and you certainly seem to be a bit of a futurist…

Cameron: I must be, because there’s a book about me called, “The Futurist.” [Laughs]

THR: So, I imagine you must have found yourself speculating about what might come after 3D. Do you feel like we’re running out of ways to stimulate the senses in the theater setting? And what might come next?

Cameron: I think we can identify some short-term goals to improve the theater experience. Make the light levels higher – especially for 3D – and increase the frame rates, which will create a clearer image so we can go to higher resolutions. I would like to increase the frame rates before we go to higher resolution, because I believe temporal resolution is more important than spatial resolution – that’s just the way it works. There’s ways to continue making that big screen experience better and better. And we’ll continue to do that. But it’s true that we are kind of out of senses to add. Stereoscopic media was the last fundamental thing we could do. We see in color, so when we were making films in black and white, that was restricting our senses. By making films in color we brought the technology up to the level of our sensory system. By making movies in 3D we’re bringing it up to the level of a species that has two eyes. If we were a bunch of Cyclopes we could have just stayed in 2D indefinitely. We have two ears and those ears are shaped to give us spatial definition of the sound field around us, so going to six tracks in surround formats has also just been about calibrating our entertainment to our sensory apparatus. Now, I think we’re done with that. Could we add smell and taste? I don’t think that really fits. Experiments with that have been pretty sketchy and not well received, necessarily. As opposed to 3D, which has always been a compelling illusion that has fascinated people. It’s been, technologically, the hardest one to pin down and bring to scale. But the interest has always been there in public consciousness, which is why I’ve always had complete faith that it’s inevitable. We’re now able to do it with digital camera technology and CG and digital projector technology. The next horizon will probably be laser, which should get us the higher light levels, better color performance, better dynamic range – all those techy things. It’s going to continue to improve and that’s the beauty of digital technology. Film is maxed out and is now obsolete in my book. But digital, by its nature, is pretty open-ended.

THR: Can you discuss your recent deep sea dive?

Cameron: One thing that people have been getting consistently wrong about the deep dives, is that it wasn’t just one dive, it was a series of dives – actually nine dives. It started with a sixty foot dive and then I went to 1000 meters; then 4000 meters; then down to 7000 meters and eventually 8000 meters. By the time I was in the 7000 to 8000 meter range, I was diving deeper — in the vehicle that our team created, the deep-sea challenger — than any other existing vehicle on the planet. And that includes all government and academic, institutional vehicles on the planet. We were going deeper than anything else. And that’s before we even went to the Challenger Deep. I think  the interesting lesson here is that a small group of privately funded, passionate young engineers, can come up with something that governments can’t do.

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THR: And so what does that mean in the bigger picture?

Cameron: Well first it means, as governments, whether it’s the U.S. or any other government, we’ve lost our edge when it comes to exploration – whether it’s space or unexplored corners of the oceans. And secondly, there are a lot of new technologies and advancements being made in material sciences that allow us to do things at a fraction of the price that it would have been previously. That allows private individuals to come into the game. Those two factors combined are making exciting things happen. You see the same thing in space, with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. You know, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is going to be regularly orbiting vehicles to service the international space station. They basically stepped into the shoes of NASA – for a fraction of the price. That’s a better business model than doing deep ocean exploration. I hate to even use the term entrepreneurial for what we’re doing, because entrepreneurial implies that there’s going to be some big profit at the end if you’re successful. But really for me the end result is the science and exploration and the imagery we’re getting. It’s not a profitable thing – we aren’t doing it because we expect to find oil and gold down there. But see, the thing is, you never really know where pure research is going to take you. The New Britain Trench — at 27,000 feet — no one had ever been down there to look at it. In one dive, in the first five minutes, I discovered two new species. In the first five minutes of being on the bottom!

THR: Throughout your career, your films have always been about taking audiences to new worlds – whether it’s the past, the future, or an alien planet – and it seems like you’re driven to seek out new worlds in your personal life. Where do you think that impulse comes from?

Cameron: For me, it all fits together. Because the love of science fiction and a love of the idea of exploring the unknown and the incredibly rich and wondrous universe is the same thing that drives my art, my drawing, my writing and the exploration. In my teenage years, that’s why I learned to scuba dive. The scuba diving took me to wreck driving, the wreck diving took me to Titanic; Titanic took me into the world of ROVs and deep sea exploration. From there it just continued deeper — literally. I would like to be going the other direction as well. In 2000 I spent the summer in Moscow going through the cosmonaut biomedical protocols and centrifugal training and all that stuff. I was going to go to the Mir space station when it was still in orbit. It’s a long story, but unfortunately that fell through – I’ll just say it had a lot to do with the crash of Columbia.

THR: Think you’ll get up there eventually?

Cameron: Well, yeah – it’s a big future right?