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James Cameron Showed A Producer The Potential For Aliens With One Little Symbol

Whether or not it beats the original's box office records, "Avatar: The Way of Water" proves at least one thing about its visionary director: James Cameron knows how to make a sequel. It's a surprisingly daunting task that can throw off even the most seasoned directors. Considering the potential for studio interference, unattainable audience expectations, and general pressures to outperform the original, it's understandable why so many sequels end up being disappointments.

For many, it appears as though "The Way of Water" was well worth its decade-long build-up, with Cameron evolving the story using the same big-picture vision he brought to the "Terminator" and "Alien" franchises. With 1986's "Aliens," for example, Cameron took on the difficult task of following up a beloved sci-fi horror film that he had no hand in making. His idea for the sequel was at once simple and successful.

As exhibited across his few sequel projects, the main way Cameron builds upon a franchise is by enlarging the scope of the story. For "Terminator 2," the follow-up to his own classic, "Terminator," this meant adding more Terminators. For "Avatar 2," this apparently meant introducing new clans and biomes; and for the follow-up to "Alien," it was as easy as adding an "S." In fact, it has been long rumored that Cameron used the simplicity of the title as a visual aid for studio executives during his initial pitch — with one more significant addition.

One word: ALIEN$

The longstanding legend of James Cameron's "Aliens" pitch was that he walked into the meeting and wrote "ALIEN" on a whiteboard. After a moment, he added an "S" — then, after another moment, he drew two lines through the "S" to spell "ALIEN$." It was a hilarious way to imagine him demystifying his grand sequel plans to a room full of money people.

This mental image stuck with director Edgar Wright, who asked Cameron if the rumors were true during a star-studded interview gauntlet for Empire. After absolving Wright of his guilt for directing a 1998 "Titanic" parody for the British sketch comedy series "French and Saunders" (which depicted him as a foul-mouthed tyrant), he admitted the story was true. "I was in a meeting with the studio head and the executive producers," he recalled, "and I turned my script over and on the blank side of the last page, I wrote 'ALIEN.' Then I drew an S on the end. Then I drew two vertical lines through the S and held it up to show them. Maybe it was just Pavlovian conditioning when they saw the $ sign connected closely to the word 'Alien.' Or maybe it was the confidence I projected. But they said yes."

This isn't the first time the "Aliens" director has confirmed the tale. In 2021, he told the story to CinemaBlend, remembering that the idea "just popped" into his head during the meeting. After writing "ALIENS" and briefly describing the idea, he allegedly said, "... here's what it's going to translate to." He recounted to CinemaBlend, "Then I drew the two lines through it to make it a dollar sign. And that was my pitch. And apparently it worked! Because they went with the title. They never questioned it."