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Avatar: The Way Of Water's Runtime Was One Of James Cameron's Biggest Battles For 'About A Year'

Filmmaker James Cameron is known to the moviegoing public for many things. He's the creator of the "Terminator" franchise, the man who turned "Alien" into "Aliens" and introduced the world to a newer, tougher version of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and the filmmaker who gave us another iconic action heroine in the form of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in the blockbuster sequel "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." He created unexpected pop culture magic again later in the '90s with "Titanic," practically becoming the King of the World in the process. Then, in 2009, he ushered in a new era of 3D movies and CGI effects with "Avatar," a franchise that is now going back to theaters with "Avatar: The Way of Water" (although, given all the developments in the "Avatar" canon between then and now, the franchise has been far from dormant in that intervening time). Given all that, not to mention Cameron's myriad other cinematic accomplishments, there is one thing that he is definitely NOT known for, and that's making movies with short runtimes.

And yet, despite that, the filmmaker says he still had to fight tooth and nail with studio executives to maintain the three-hour runtime of "Avatar: The Way of Water" that was originally pitched to 21st Century Fox before the company was acquired by Disney. In fact, in a recent statement to Entertainment Weekly, he called the struggle over the film's runtime "our bête noire for about a year."

Cameron says Avatar: The Way of Water's length caused tension

A look at James Cameron's filmography will show he's got a penchant for movies that sail north of the traditional two-hour mark, with only two early films — "Piranha II: The Spawning" and his breakthrough hit "The Terminator" — clocking in before that mark is reached. But he's also proved that a properly motivated audience will not balk at movies that stretch on well past that point. And if you look at a list of James Cameron movies ranked by how much they made at the box office, you'll see that his two most commercially successful projects to date, "Titanic" and "Avatar," are 195 minutes and 162 minutes long, respectively. It would be very difficult to argue that either film suffered commercially because of its extended run time.

You might think that Cameron's proven track record of turning movies in the neighborhood of three hours long into box office bonanzas would mean that Disney would be eager to let him make "Avatar: The Way of Water" as long as he likes. But according to an interview with the filmmaker and Entertainment Weekly, you would be mistaken in that assumption. 

"I think there was a lot of tension around length," James Cameron told Entertainment Weekly, adding that the way the film's narrative is structured would make it tricky to do much cutting even if he'd wanted to: "And because it's a complicated linear narrative, which is the worst scenario for trying to shorten, you've got a complex story servicing a lot of characters, and it's like dominos falling: This has to happen for that to happen. You're not following a bunch of parallel plot lines in a way that you could take a lot out."

Cameron felt an obligation to keep the film at its originally agreed upon length

But of course, James Cameron is James Cameron, and he's not going to cut anything out of his movie unless he wants to. That doesn't mean he just wants his movies long for the sake of it, but that he values pacing over length — and anyone who's ever sat through an 85-minute movie that felt like slow torture would have to admit the value of that.

"The hardest thing when you're trying to shorten a film is to hold onto the things that don't advance the plot, that are beautiful or scary or suspenseful for their own sake," he said. "Things came out, and then if I felt the pacing was off, we put things back in." The result, ideally, is a film that may be long without feeling long, an important element for Cameron — albeit one that is possibly over the heads of your average movie executive.

Nevertheless, Cameron said he felt an obligation to maintain the three-hour runtime the film was originally pitched with before Disney bought out Fox. Now, with the 192-minute "Avatar: Way of Water" gliding into theaters, the world will find out whether sticking to his guns will once again pay commercial and artistic dividends for the acclaimed filmmaker.