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The $1 billion dollar investment into four sequels to Avatar is a frequent target of snark from many film fans, but the fact of the matter is the Avatar franchise is going to be a box office behemoth, eclipsing other modern franchises like Star Wars and Marvel.
The first Avatar movie arrived in theaters in 2009 and wowed audiences with its revolutionary 3D effects and use of CGI and motion capture, especially in IMAX. The movie would go on to become the highest grossing film of all time with a total of $2,787,965,087 at the worldwide box office. It's taken ten years for director James Cameron to produce a sequel, but starting in December 2020, we'll see the first of four sequels, all of which are being produced at the same time to save on costs.
In an age where successful blockbuster franchises seem to have figured out a winning formula, running like well-oiled machines with regular releases, the commitment to not one, two, or three, but four sequels all at once may seem foolhardy, but discounting the potential of this franchise would be ignorant of the true success of the first movie and James Cameron's history in Hollywood.
The extent of the box office success of the first Avatar can't be overstated. It's the biggest movie of all time, and by a margin so large, you'd need to add the box office take of two movies to match it. At over $2.78 billion Avatar is the equivalent of Avengers: Infinity War and Guardians of the Galaxy put together, only it was made for less than half of their combined budgets.
This isn't a case of Avengers: Infinity War, the 4th highest grossing movie of all time, simply coming up a few weekends short. It literally came up an entire $773 million blockbuster movie short of Avatar. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the 3rd highest grossing movie of all time, only beat Avengers: Infinity War by around $20 million. That's still the equivalent of the box office take of a blockbuster success like Suicide Squad lower than Avatar.
It may seem absurd to evaluate a blockbuster's success based on what two movies would need to combine their box office haul to match it, but that just goes to show just how massive Avatar was. Many people are assuming the sequels will see a big drop at the box office from the first, and that might be true, but even if Avatar 2 only does 75% of the first movie's box office, it still beats Avengers: Infinity War and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In fact, it could see only half the box office success of the first movie and still be in the top 10 all time, beating movies like Black Panther, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Box office rankings aside, looking at the four sequels as pure business investments. The traditional rule of movie profits being that a movie needs to double its budget to make a profit, the $1 billion combined budget for the four movies means each needs to only hit $500 million - under 18% of the first movie's haul - in order to turn a profit. On top of that, while the budget on each movie works out to be an average of $250 million, the synergy of running the productions together and shooting back to back means that $250 million will go a lot farther than a typical $250 million movie.
In order to drop far enough from the numbers of the original to not even turn a profit, the sequels would have to be an absolutely abysmal failure, and it would never be wise to anticipate that kind of result from James Cameron.