How Disney/Fox has sold a return to land of the clear blue (people) waters
It wasn’t long after the 2009 release of Avatar before director James Cameron started talking about the myriad stories he had in mind for the sequels he was planning to make. Over the 13 subsequent years the number of sequels being developed varied from two to five or more, and the target release dates for those movies has slipped from the original 2014 to, roughly, now.
Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters with more than a decade’s worth of anticipation, both from the audience and the movie industry, on its shoulders.
Picking up a decade after the first film, the story once again follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who now lives completely in the body of a Na’vi, the natives of the planet Pandora. He has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and together they have two children of their own along with Spider, a human boy born on Pandora who has taken on the customs of the Na’vi, and Kiri, a Na’vi avatar with the mind of human Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).
Once again the story focuses on the attempted human exploitation of Pandora for its mineral resources. Another team of humans has crossed the stars, including Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has been resurrected into a Na’vi clone avatar. As they attempt to stop the invasion, Jake and Neytiri are forced to leave their own tribe and take refuge among one that lives in and around Pandora’s oceans, opening up a whole new part of the planet barely shown in the first movie.
Just as with the original, this one has been supported with a massive marketing campaign, so let’s get on with it.
prelude : 2017 & 2018
After years and years and dozens of false starts, announcements that production was about to commence followed by news that Cameron was delaying it for some reason, in September 2017 we got what amounts to a “proof of life” photo in the first official still of the new movie’s young cast.
In an interview that was otherwise about Titanic’s 20th anniversary, Cameron made it clear that the second and third Avatar movies would be a complete story but that if they were successful more installments could come. Other than that, few details were revealed as to the story. He did though confirm that Winslet had joined the cast.
Sony ran a substantial paid social media campaign in mid-2018 touting Cameron’s use of its new Alpha cameras on the film.
Producer Jon Landau offered a bit of an update on production during Fox’s CinemaCon 2018 presentation, basically assuring exhibition executives that the movie really for sure was totally happening. Landau and Cameron later took the same message to CineEurope.
prelude (continued): 2019 & 2020
While he was out promoting Alita: Battle Angel, Cameron confirmed that some of the titles floated for the various sequels were – or at least had been – accurate. It wasn’t much but it kept the conversation around the movie alive while production dragged on.
At the end of November 2019 the official Twitter account marked the end of principal photography by showing off one of the production’s massive sets.
That the sequels were still on track was confirmed by Cameron in late December 2019. Concept art showing some of the film’s locations was released a month later. Production was delayed for a short while because of the Covid-19 pandemic but was scheduled to resume in late May.
In late 2019 Cameron told his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger that filming on this installment was “100%” complete while production of the third was nearly done.
Mercedes Benz announced a partnership with the movie in early January 2020, just before it unveiled the VISION AVTR concept car at CES. The car featured no steering wheel but reportedly used intuitive navigation along with being carbon neutral and more.
In October 2020 Dark Horse announced a new comics mini-series set just after the events of the first film, the first continuation of that story as the sequels were still in production.
almost there: 2021 & 2022
In April 2021 Cameron appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the sequels he was filming and express his hope that movie theaters survive long enough for them to show his new movies.
A batch of new stills was given to Empire in October of that year, with Landau offering brief tidbits on the story and characters. Cameron talked more later about the difficulties – largely of his own making – involved in production and how he and the cast adapted to those challenges. Landau was back in a later interview to praise Cameron’s approach to filming and set up what might be coming in additional sequels.
In an interview that was ostensibly about her movie The Adam Project, Saldana spoke about the emotional nature of the footage she’d seen from this film while also commenting on the challenges of filming such a technical project. Later on Worthington also talked about the long waiting period for the second installment and what it was like to come back to this world.
The movie was among those touted by Disney during their CinemaCon presentation in April, with attendees getting a look at footage with producer Landau on stage to talk about Cameron’s plans for this and future installments. It was also announced the first trailer was going to debut in front of the Doctor Strange sequel about to come out.
the marketing campaign: teasers and LEGO sets
After all that the campaign proper finally kicked off when the first trailer (26m YouTube views) hit the internet in early May. There’s little to no story that’s revealed here, it’s mostly a collection of beauty shots of the film’s colorful world and characters, though you can skim some hints from what’s shown. There’s obviously a new level of cooperation between the Na’vi and humans on Pandora, and we see lots of the kids in Sully’s family.
The teaser poster released at the same time shows an extreme closeup of one of those characters.
In late June the movie was the subject of a feature cover story in Empire that included a batch of exclusive images, including the first look at the character played by Winslet, and comments from Cameron defending the film’s reported three-hour running time.
Landau and producer Josh Izzo made an appearance at LEGO Con in June to unveil the first Avatar-based LEGO set.
the marketing campaign: the first movie returns
In late-August Disney announced the first movie was returning to theaters in September to set the stage for the sequel. Trailers, posters and TV spots were all created to support that rerelease. There was even a featurette with Cameron and the cast talking about the movie’s cultural impact.
That release added an impressive $58 million to the movie’s total, an amount seen as a positive indicator there was audience demand for the upcoming sequel. That was aided in part by the fact the film was pulled from the Disney+ streaming service in advance of this engagement but then returned a few weeks ahead of the sequel hitting theaters.
Cameron appeared via camera while Weaver, Saldaña, Worthington and Lang were on stage at Disney’s D23 event, also in September. They all talked about the experience of making the movie and showed off footage to those in attendance as they worked to sell it as a massive blockbuster theater owners could count on to prop up the fall box office.
A wide-ranging profile of Cameron included him touting the theatrical experience that the first movie delivered and the second movie promises, specifically pointing to how young audiences are craving that sort of immersive communal viewing. He also recounted the battles he had with Fox over the making of the first film and how he was kind of glad it wound up being over a decade before the second movie was made and released.
Cameron hosts a featurette from mid-September that focuses on the impact the first movie had on the cast and others
Weaver talked about this movie when she appeared on “The Late Show” during her press rounds for The Good House back in September. She was also the subject of an NYT profile that covered not just this film but also The Good House and Call Jane, all of which were coming out over the span of a few months.
There were a couple features like this that openly questioned whether too much time had passed since the first movie and whether its cultural impact was strong enough to buoy a sequel. Along similar lines were the “was anyone really pining for an Avatar sequel” stories that puts this movie in the context of other franchises, where the concept of a “sequel” is somewhat antiquated, as well as asking whether or not there was a groundswell of fan demand for more stories from Pandora.
the marketing campaign: now we’re getting serious
After spending much of October promoting LEGO sets, high-end statues and more, the second trailer (43.6m YouTube views) was finally released in early November. It spends half its running time just showing off the visuals of the movie and making it clear there’s even more spectacle this time around. Only after all that do we get – for the first time in the campaign – to the conflict that is driving the story. But even that is brushed past quickly in favor of more talk about “the way of water” and lots of shots of massive creatures moving through the oceans.
The poster released at the same time shows Sully and Neytiri looking at their children as someone flies a winged animal over the surface of the water.
Footage from the film was shown at a massive event at Niagara Falls, which itself was illuminated in celebration of the trailer’s release.
Total Film published a cover story on the film that included another batch of stills.
Disney launched an initiative called Keep Our Oceans Amazing where the company promised to donate $5 to The Nature Conservancy for ocean preservation and clean-up for every piece of artwork submitted by fans showing off their own underwater creature creation.
Another profile of Cameron had him talking about how the characters have grown and evolved since the first story and how this one is even more personal for him given his work on ocean conservation.
The final trailer (13m YouTube views) debuted later in November, just as tickets were going on sale, during an ESPN broadcast of “Monday Night Football.” It starts off with Sully explaining to the chief of the ocean-dwelling clan he’s just trying to keep his family safe, but what it is he’s keeping them safe from is never explained and once again only shown briefly. More time is devoted to how the Na’vi teenagers have to adjust to the water clan’s ways and learn to ride the ocean creatures they rely on.
A series of posters gave all the main characters their own spotlight. There were also exclusive one-sheets released for Dolby and IMAX that continue the focus on the colorful imagery without much of the story explained or on display. IMAX also shared an exclusive featurette on the making of the movie. A little bit later there were additional posters for RealD3D, 4DX and ScreenX.
Once again the release of a trailer was accompanied by a massive event, this time an “Avatar Day” display of footage in New York City’s Times Square. Later on the center of Venice would be lit up with a massive “A” to celebrate the movie’s upcoming release.
Along with the beginning of paid advertising – including TV spots, online banner ads and more – late November brought the beginning of the non-Cameron part of the publicity campaign. The younger members of the cast appeared on the “Disney Holiday Celebration” special while Saldana appeared on “GMA” and other shows, including the online “Hot Ones” taste test/interview series. Closer to release Weaver appeared on “Kimmel”
The in-person events started when the cast assembled at Brazil Comic-Con at the beginning of December. They then turned out for the world premiere in London. Later stops on the world press tour included Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo before ending with the blue carpet event in Los Angeles, which Cameron had to skip after he was diagnosed with Covid-19 but where the rest of the cast talked about shooting the movie, especially the technically difficult underwater shoots and more.
It was announced shortly after that the original song “Nothing is Lost” from The Weeknd would appear on the soundtrack.
Two more character posters came out focusing on a couple of the younger characters.
Saldana and Worthington asked each other softball questions in an official video. Worthington was the subject of a feature profile that delved into the personal and professional struggles he’s faced and largely overcome in the 13 years since the first movie should have catapulted him to the stratosphere.
First off, the $150-175 million opening weekend predicted by tracking estimates is alright, but let’s keep in mind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever just opened to about $180 million in its first weekend, so it wouldn’t be earth-shattering, especially given Cameron’s comments about how it kind of needs to be a top-five all-time total just to make its production budget back.
This while media companies of all kinds are laying off staff, pulling content from streaming services to save money on residuals, canceling other expensive productions and so on. I mean…good for Cameron et al but also, the question of whether or not the first movie has any sort of cultural traction remains a valid one.
While the marketing campaign here is certainly massive and seems to have done its job in generating awareness and interest, there’s little here that answers the question above in an affirmative manner. That stems primarily from how the marketing keeps insisting on not showing the audience what the story of the movie is. It’s *all* about the sweeping camera shots and the beautiful shots of the alien planet but there’s nearly nothing here, not even in the press and publicity interviews, about the conflict that threatens Pandora. That has to be a choice (not one I necessarily agree with) based on how the pretty pictures are going to do more to sell LEGO sets than scenes of bombs and missles raining down on a peaceful people.