Strike while the iron is hot: that’s the prevalent thinking in Hollywood when it comes to making a sequel. If you have a success, get another one out as soon as possible. In 2009 and 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar wasn’t just hot, it was the surface of the sun. The 3D movie about the blue people on an alien planet quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time. Plans for a sequel were discussed almost immediately. Then 13 years passed.
Thirteen years. That’s how long fans have been waiting for James Cameron to come back to Pandora. It’s taken so long the studio that made the original film, 20th Century Fox, doesn’t even exist anymore. (It was purchased by Disney starting in 2017.) However, it’s not like that time just passed idly. Cameron and his team spent years on the film, with release dates going back to 2014 all scheduled before being canceled. Along the way, right by Cameron’s side, was producer Jon Landau, and he spoke to io9 about the long delays and offered up some clarity.
“Script, design, and production,” Landau said when asked the three main reasons for the delay. “[We wrote] four scripts, not one, and that takes time. You can’t go, ‘Okay, we like movie three [but] we’re not there yet on movie two,’ or vice versa. We wanted to define, for the characters, their whole journey ... We had to have that in place for the production design team to design. Because there might be a vehicle in movie two that we call out as a background vehicle, but it plays a big role in movie four. If they don’t know that they’re not going to design it that way. Then we chose, for efficiency and logistical reasons, to shoot movie two, three, and the first act of part four, all together. So those are the [main] three reasons.”
What Landau only alludes to in his response is that the original plan wasn’t four sequels. It was, originally, just going to be three sequels (he said reports that it was ever just two sequels are inaccurate). So, how did a whole other sequel get tacked onto the story?
“What happened was Jim had 1,500 pages of notes,” Landau said. “We brought in three teams of writers and they worked for six months to break down those notes into three scripts. We then assigned those scripts to the writers with Jim writing on each one of them, and as we got into that process, we realized we weren’t including everything we wanted to include. And it was at that point that we went from three [sequels] to four.”
The move from three sequels to four was announced on April 14, 2016. At that time, Avatar 2 was supposed to come out in December of 2018, with the fifth movie in December 2023. That obviously didn’t happen. The dates continued to shift until 2019, when Avatar 2 was scheduled for release in December 2021. Landau thought that was going to be the date. Then the world changed.
“Pre-pandemic, we were on track for a ‘21 date but it was a tight ‘21 date,” he said. “I mean, look, we work to the last minute. Why? Because we want to deliver the best quality. We don’t want to say, ‘Oh, we finished the movie 12 weeks ago.’ If we did that, we just ran out of good ideas. [Laughs] So 2021 was going to be a tight release date. And then the pandemic struck, and we were supposed to be back in February  for a second block of filming. We couldn’t do it until June. When we did it in June, we had to do it under different conditions that slowed down that process. So what was supposed to be an X weeks shoot was X times one and a half, and that just put us in a place where we couldn’t make 2021. So that was the push to 2022.”
And that’s how, almost 13 years to the day after the original, Avatar: The Way of Water makes its way into theaters on December 16. A film that has been tirelessly worked on for a decade to set up three more films that have been equally scrutinized for the same amount of time. And, if early buzz is to be believed, Cameron and Landau have made it more than worth the wait.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.