For Fox, Much Is Riding on 3 Sequels to ‘Avatar’

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LOS ANGELES — Like the deep-sea craft James Cameron used to dive nearly seven miles down in the Pacific, the long-awaited screenplays for his three sequels to “Avatar” will soon pop to the surface, probably within weeks.


Mr. Cameron, an avid adventurer as well as one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, has been working for much of the last several years on the “Avatar” films, when he was not indulging his other passion and exploring the deepest parts of the ocean.


For those who share Mr. Cameron’s moviemaking adventures — particularly executives at 20th Century Fox, which released “Avatar” to about $2.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales almost five years ago — delivery of finished scripts will signal the beginning of perhaps their grandest enterprise.


Fox, as well as Mr. Cameron and his cohorts at Lightstorm Entertainment, his production company, are expecting the three successive “Avatar” films — set for release in three straight Decembers beginning in 2016 — to transform their companies and possibly once again to set a new standard for large-scale, multimedia entertainment.


Billions of dollars are riding on the effort. The effects-heavy sequels will be expensive: Mr. Cameron has vaguely said their combined production cost would be less than $1 billion, though the movies cannot be budgeted until they are written.


But in Mr. Cameron, the project is being led by a director who helped to redefine his industry with “The Terminator,” “Titanic” and the immersive 3-D science fiction spectacle “Avatar.”


“Jim first and foremost in life is an explorer, and it’s what he does in his movies,” said Jon Landau, Mr. Cameron’s business partner. Speaking by telephone recently, Mr. Landau described what he said had been a yearslong effort to conceptualize an entire “Avatar” universe that would be realized over 20 years or more in various media, some of which have yet to be invented.


“We decided to build out the breadth of our world — whether or not it’s in one of the films — now,” he said.


“This is not about any one medium,” Mr. Landau added, referring to the elaborate ideas being developed by Mr. Cameron, along with a team of four screenwriters, and by a novelist, Steven Gould.


Mr. Gould, known especially for the science fiction book “Jumper,” is weaving those ideas into novels that are meant to read as if they had inspired, rather than were spun off from, “Avatar.”


Fox has waited, optimistically, through Mr. Cameron’s painstaking deliberations, but at some cost.


The “Avatar” hiatus has led to some shrinkage at Fox, which last year fell to sixth among the major studios in market share. In 2013, it had about $1.1 billion in domestic ticket sales, compared with nearly $1.5 billion in 2010, when “Avatar” was working its way toward becoming the best-selling movie in history (without adjusting for inflation, which would put “Gone With the Wind” on top).


For the quarter that ended March 31, the studio contributed $354 million in operating income to its parent, 21st Century Fox. The performance was solid, and it will be bolstered this year by “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the surprise hit “The Fault in Our Stars” and the next film in the revived “Planet of the Apes” series. But it accounted for less than 20 percent of the total $1.8 billion in operating income at a company that is dominated by its cable network operations.


“When I talk to the company, it really matters,” Michael Nathanson, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, said of the sequels. “This could be more meaningful for the company than just the first ‘Avatar’ was.”


While Warner exploited its enormous series of “Harry Potter” and “Hobbit” films, Fox played out its decades-old “Star Wars” franchise, which went to Disney with its purchase of Lucasfilm. It also made hay with its somewhat more modest “X-Men” films and rebuilt “Planet of the Apes,” a series born in 1968.


But the new “Avatar” films have open-ended storytelling potential — as purely original inventions, they are not limited by existing books or the aging of a young star. And they are coupled with Mr. Cameron’s insistence on an ever more realistic audience experience. In the view of Jim Gianopulos, 20th Century Fox’s chief executive, that makes them worth the wait.


“After all these years together, you just say, ‘O.K., Jim’s ready to make a movie. Let’s strap in and go for the ride,’ ” said Mr. Gianopulos by telephone recently.


In making the sequels, he said, Fox will have a financial partner, the Seelig Group. But the studio will invest enough of its own money to own a larger share than the portion — somewhat above 40 percent — that it held of the original “Avatar,” which was similarly split with outside financiers


The long process of exploiting the new films, Mr. Gianopulos added, would only begin with their expected success in theaters. “We’re going to have merry Christmases for the next few years,” he predicted.


As the films roll out, Mr. Gianopulos said, Fox expects that a growing string of ancillary businesses will be helped along by an unusually robust online operation that is being built.


“Jim always finds the edge of the envelope and goes flying past it,” he said.


Still, impatience has sometimes been noticeable at Fox. During a conference call in early 2010, Rupert Murdoch, whose media conglomerate owns 20th Century Fox, warned eager investors not to expect a promised follow-up from Mr. Cameron anytime soon. “Being Jim Cameron, I wouldn’t hold your breath for an early one,” Mr. Murdoch said.


At Lionsgate and its Summit unit, in fact, five “Twilight” films came and went in less time than it has taken Mr. Cameron to create a sequel to his interplanetary blockbuster about lovers reaching across the universe to save life, limb and an endangered world.


Asked about the slow pacing, Mr. Landau said it had been born of the same methodical preparedness ethic that guides Mr. Cameron’s deep-sea explorations. “He tries to do things as safely as possible,” Mr. Landau said.


Fox executives at one point believed they might shoot an “Avatar” sequel in 2011, for release this year.


But Mr. Cameron, though he did not exactly drift out to sea, became preoccupied with a growing tangle of commitments and concerns. Those included ultra-deep-sea dives, now the subject of a self-narrated 3-D documentary called “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” set for release by National Geographic Entertainment and DisruptiveLA on Aug. 8. In it, Mr. Cameron explains that he is torn between filmmaking and his expeditions, and he has been unable to decide which comes first.


Then came his own belief that he needed not one but three films, to be shot simultaneously, along with a growing round of related enterprises, in which Fox participates, to realize his vision.


Those adjunct projects are already taking shape. At an “Avatar”-themed area in Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., for instance, Mr. Cameron helped design an attraction that by 2017 will plant visitors on his mythical planet of Pandora. “They’ll walk under floating mountains higher than three Staples Centers stacked on top of each other,” said Mr. Landau, referring to the Los Angeles arena.


On a smaller scale, Mr. Cameron announced at a conference last month in Montreal that he would join with Cirque du Soleil to develop an “Avatar”-themed touring troupe, with a debut planned for next year. By then, he should finally be shooting movies that Mr. Landau describes as being in “preproduction,” though expensive screenwriters continue to work on the scripts.


The first sequel, Mr. Landau confirmed, will be written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, a husband-and-wife team known for their work on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The second, he said, will come from Josh Friedman, who worked with Lightstorm on the television series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” The third is being written by Shane Salerno, who also worked previously with Mr. Cameron, and who was already blocking out his “Avatar” script while promoting the release of his documentary “Salinger” last year.


Those writers, said Mr. Landau, did much of their brainstorming last year with both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Gould in a room at the MBS Media Campus, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., studio where Mr. Cameron expects to shoot effects sequences, while filming much of the live action — and spending an estimated $400 million — in New Zealand.


Technologically, said Mr. Landau, the new films will step beyond the first, though he stopped short of promising radical changes to the 3-D and performance-capture techniques that gave a startlingly immersive feel to those who viewed “Avatar.”


Around Fox, executives have speculated that Mr. Cameron will somehow exploit virtual reality systems of the kind that Oculus VR, now owned by Facebook, has been developing. An Oculus spokesman declined to say whether Mr. Cameron had yet sampled its technology.


Mr. Gianopulos confirmed that Fox and the filmmakers were closely examining the potential of virtual reality techniques, but a crucial question, he said, is whether they are used within a film or in some corollary medium.


As for plotlines, Mr. Landau said only that he expected all the films to follow the principal characters, played by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana — one human, one not — who were central to the first. “It’s the story of their life together,” he said.


Asked whether one of the movies, as occasionally hinted on fan-oriented websites and elsewhere, would take place mostly underwater, Mr. Landau said that might be expecting too much, even from the submersible Mr. Cameron.


“It’s hard to have a dialogue scene underwater,” he noted.


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