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The real reason Avatar 2 keeps getting delayed

In 2009, James Cameron's Avatar premiered with a ton of hype. This wasn't just a movie — this was an immersive visual experience unlike any other production at the time. Whether you loved it or felt a little underwhelmed by the actual plot, everyone had to admit that the cinematography and CGI were simply unmatched. For a while, it really did feel like you had slipped away into the world of Pandora.

Avatar broke box office records set by Cameron's other massive blockbuster, Titanic, to become the highest-grossing film of all time, and the first film to gross more than $2 billion worldwide. After the success of Avatar, Cameron signed on with Fox to begin working on multiple sequels, with the first initially due to be released in 2014. It was clear there was so much more to the world of Pandora that he wanted to explore, but it's been ten years since the release of the first Avatar film, and no sequels have come out. What's with the long wait? With an intense production schedule, new technological developments, and conflicts with other blockbusters, the release date has been continuously pushed back. Here's why Avatar 2 has been delayed for years.

James Camerons' busy schedule

Between all of his directing and producing commitments, it seems like James Cameron barely has a moment to himself. He's one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, and he always has a lot on his plate. Over the past decade, he has been involved with several other films in varying capacities, including Sanctum, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, Deepsea Challenge 3D, The Game Changers, and Alita: Battle Angel. He's also been working as a producer on Terminator: Dark Fate.

And those are just the films that have actually come to life — Cameron has also worked on projects that never got off the ground, like Guillermo del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness and a remake of the 1968 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage. Avatar 2 is obviously a huge project that would take up most of Cameron's time. Clearly, he knew he had some leeway with the release date (the first film was so lucrative that the studio wasn't going to tell him no), so he could afford to put it off for a bit.

Artistic changes

Cameron's original idea was that Avatar 2 would provide the set up for Avatar 3 — they were supposed to be connected by one unfolding narrative. But producer Jon Landau began reconsidering this plan. In 2012, he decided that a change of artistic direction was in order. Instead of a cohesive trilogy, Avatar 2 and 3 would be standalone films with totally different storylines, just taking place in the same universe.

Landau wasn't on the same page as Cameron at first, but eventually, he persuaded Cameron to understand his vision. His reasoning? He didn't want the films to be like one long movie with years of "intermission" in between. And after all this waiting for the first sequel, his line of thinking is understandable. "That's where movies fall into trouble," Landau told The Hollywood Reporter, "when they try to say: 'You know what? It's really one movie and there's an intermission' — so we want each one to be a standalone movie."

Indecision about the sequels

Initially, there were only supposed to be two sequels to Avatar. But Cameron is not the kind of director who does anything halfway, and he decided that he needed another film to dig deeper into the world of Pandora. For a while, he went back and forth on the possibility of a fourth film. He announced that there would be a fourth installment to the franchise, then retracted his statement. At one point, he toyed with the idea of releasing a prequel as the fourth film.

Eventually, Avatar 4 was officially added to the production schedule in 2013. Shooting was planned to be simultaneous with the other two sequels. Naturally, this meant that Cameron was stretched even thinner. At this point, none of the scripts were even fully written, and shooting hadn't begun for any of the films. Predictably, the release dates were pushed back — there was just no way the first sequel could be wrapped up by 2014. Instead, Avatar 2 was slated to hit theaters in 2016.

Adding a fifth movie

Cameron had already decided that two sequels wouldn't be adequate, and that he wanted to move forward with a third. But eventually, he started feeling like even Avatar 4 wouldn't be enough. In 2016, Cameron announced that there would be an additional fifth film, which he still planned to shoot simultaneously with the other three sequels. Naturally, this meant that the release of Avatar 2 would be delayed again, and a new date was announced: December 2018.

But clearly, December 2018 has come and gone without a release. It's true that the schedule has been delayed more than anyone ever expected when Cameron first set out to direct these sequels. But with Cameron's string of impressive box office records, it's hard to argue with his plans — he might be behind schedule, but he knows what he's doing. Even though we probably won't see Avatar 2 in theaters for another few years, the film is likely to be another incredible visual spectacle.

Zoe Saldana's scheduling conflicts

In Avatar, Zoe Saldana played Ney'tiri, a member of the Na'vi tribe on Pandora. She meets Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who has been sent to Pandora as part of a project to harvest the planet's natural resources. They fall in love, which causes Sully to ally with the Na'vi to protect their home.

Saldana signed on to work on the subsequent Avatar films. However, she's also been busy with other movies for the past few years. She's appeared in several blockbusters, including Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, the Star Trek films, and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Her schedule was probably nearly as busy as Cameron's. But there was no way they could go forward with the other Avatar films without her — after all, she was one of the most important characters in the first film. Therefore, the delay in shooting may have been to her benefit.

Shooting didn't begin until 2017

In 2017, another new release schedule was announced. Yes, everything had been delayed yet again, and now, December 2020 was set as the anticipated release date for Avatar 2. Thankfully, there was also a more encouraging update this time around: production had actually begun!

Saldana was back to film her scenes for both Avatar 2 and 3. Sigourney Weaver also returned, reportedly as a new character rather than reprising her role as the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine. There are some new faces involved in these productions as well. Even though she has been quoted as saying she probably wouldn't work with James Cameron again, Kate Winslet will actually be appearing in the sequels. Perhaps enough time has finally passed since her grueling shooting experience on the set of Titanic for her to reconsider. Even though production started much later than initially planned (after all, at this point the film had been delayed by several years already), this was still a pretty exciting development.

The Disney/Fox merger

In March 2019, another new development shook up the release schedule, as Disney officially completed their merger with Fox. Now, the massive media conglomerate owns a huge number of Fox's beloved films and TV shows, including Avatar and any future sequels.

But Disney also has some other major releases in a certain popular franchise planned for the next few years: the highly anticipated upcoming Star Wars films. Disney decided that it would be a better idea to stagger those releases than to put all of these films out on a similar timeline. So, what are the new dates? Avatar 2 is now set to be released in December 2021, with a new Star Wars film hitting theaters in December 2022. The next Avatar sequels will then be released every two years, so we can (probably) expect another one by December 2023, if things go according to plan. Of course, there's always a chance that the schedule could change again.

Waning popularity

Yes, Avatar was extremely popular when it came out. There's no doubt that the critical acclaim was well deserved — there was really nothing like it yet at the time. But it was originally presented to audiences as a standalone film, so no one was anticipating a sequel at first. And even after they were announced, it's taken so long to shoot them that after a while, many people probably just assumed that they weren't happening.

The initial production didn't even start until seven years after the first sequel was announced, and three years after it was originally supposed to be released. The early enthusiasm around the film gradually fizzled out, and while some people are undoubtedly excited to see Pandora return to the big screen, fans aren't exactly clamoring for the sequels. What's one more delayed release at this point? It hasn't been treated as a priority partially because there hasn't been much pressure from audiences.

Cameron is a perfectionist

Cameron is a perfectionist. He doesn't leave a single detail of his films up to chance. That's partially why his movies have always been so successful — Avatar didn't come together by accident. Cameron delved deep into the world building process, fleshing out every aspect of life on Pandora.

At Hero Complex Film Festival in 2014, Cameron said that he had taken a full year to write 1,500 pages of notes about Pandora. He mapped out everything from an exploration of the Na'vi culture to descriptions of different animal species on the planet to explaining Pandora's biome. His notes on Pandora were the length of several novels — he left no stone unturned. He spent so much time getting all of those details down, and there was no way he was going to let all of that planning go to waste. He wanted to make sure that the new films hit all the right notes and captured all of the ideas he had on paper.

It's a massive production

Look, Avatar 2 isn't exactly an indie film being produced on a shoestring budget. It goes without saying that this is a huge production, and anyone who saw the first film could tell just how much work was put into it.

When you realize the scale of the production, it's no wonder that the sequels are taking so long. And in fact, production is actually moving faster for the sequels than the original film! It sounds unbelievable, but it's true. Cameron wrote the script for Avatar all the way back in 1996, and the film did not come out for another thirteen years. Yes, that means that he started writing it while he was in the process of filming Titanic. He just couldn't move forward with it for years because his ideas were so futuristic that he had to wait for technology to catch up with his imagination so he could create the film he wanted. Technically, he's kind of ahead of schedule right now compared to producing Avatar. When you realize how long it took to get the first film to the screen, the long wait for a follow-up doesn't come as such a surprise.

Cameron was on the writing team for every sequel

Why did it take so long to finish the scripts for the sequels? Cameron's process was straightforward, but it was never going to be a quick or easy project. First, he established four separate teams of writers. These teams spent eight months working together on the stories for each film and fleshing out the characters and universe. Once they had all of the overarching details down, they split off again, this time to each work on a script for one of the four films.

So, what took so long? Well, Cameron wanted to personally sit on each writing team. He didn't take 1,500 pages of notes for nothing! This is totally understandable — Avatar is his creation, after all — but in order for him to work with each team individually, he had to take extra time. He couldn't exactly be in four places at once. It was an interesting method, but it definitely couldn't be rushed.

Cameron had to develop new technology

Before directing Avatar, Cameron basically had to wait until the technology he needed actually became available — it just wasn't possible to make a film like that in the '90s. As it turned out, he actually had to invent some of the technology used to produce Avatar on his own.

So far, it's been the same story for the sequels. The motion capture technology used for the films needs to work underwater, which adds a whole new challenge to shooting. In fact, it's never been done before. But thankfully, that has never stopped Cameron. After all, he's perfectly comfortable working underwater. He spent the past few years experimenting with motion capture technology, and eventually, the team figured out how to get the visuals they wanted. "We're getting really good data, beautiful character motion and great facial performance capture," Cameron told Collider. "We've basically cracked the code." In December 2021, we might finally get to see Pandora's oceans come to life on the big screen.