The Return of James Cameron, Box Office King by Zach Baron for GQ
A couple weeks I read this profile of James Cameron on GQ and have been meaning to share it. This was the quote that pulled me in. I love James’ gumption. He is a prime example of backing up the talk with the walk. I know the excerpt is long, but the whole profile is killer. I censored the quote to keep the site clean.
And when he did decide to return to Hollywood, with the idea for the first Avatar, Cameron’s longtime studio, Fox, almost didn’t want to make it. Cameron has mellowed with time and age, but he is still a score-settler, a keeper of grudges. He will recount, in great detail, the conversation he had with Peter Chernin, then the head of Fox, when the studio initially passed on the film. Chernin, in Cameron’s recollection, read the script and liked it. But, he asked: “ ‘Is there any way you can get the kind of tree-hugging hippie bull**** out of it?’ Quote, unquote. I said, ‘So Peter, I’m at a point now in my career and in my life where I can pretty much make any movie I want. And I chose to make this story because of the tree-hugging hippie bull****.’ ” But Chernin, in Cameron’s telling, held firm in the end, and passed. “And I said, ‘Now you know before your taillights are out of sight, I will be on the phone with Dick Cook at Disney who wants this, and we’ll make a deal, and that’ll be that, and then whatever happens, happens. And you might look like a big d**k if it makes a lot of money.’
And eventually Disney got it: both the park and the whole IP.
And you can see him kind of like, recoil, because that’s the moment that all studio executives absolutely are terrified by. That you pass on something. Like Casey Silver passed on Titanic at Universal, right? He looked like a d**k later. Just for that one thing. Casey’s a good guy. There was that flinch. But he said, ‘Nope, we’re passing.’ ” (Chernin—again, as sometimes happens with Cameron—recalls it slightly differently: “I don’t remember the ‘tree-hugging hippie bull****.’ I may have said that. But that’s not it at all.” The issue, he said, was around the budget of the film. “And I’m not even sure we passed on it. We passed on the price, and then we went back and forth.”)
In the end, Fox did come back, and Cameron made Avatar with the studio. (The Way of Water was also a Fox project, before the company was bought and subsumed by Disney.) But Cameron still remembers an executive at the company—“who will go unnamed, because this is a really negative review”—who approached Cameron with a “stricken cancer-diagnosis expression” after a prerelease screening of the film and begged the director to shorten it. “I said something I’ve never said to anybody else in the business,” Cameron recalled. He said he told him, “ ‘I think this movie is going to make all the f****** money. And when it does, it’s going to be too late for you to love the film. The time for you to love the movie is today. So I’m not asking you to say something that you don’t feel, but just know that I will always know that no matter how complimentary you are about the movie in the future when it makes all the money’—and that’s exactly what I said, in caps, ALL THE MONEY, not some of the money, all the f****** money. I said, ‘You can’t come back to me and compliment the film or chum along and say, ‘Look what we did together.’ You won’t be able to do that.’ At that point, that particular studio executive flipped out and went bug s*** on me. And I told him to get the f*** out of my office. And that’s where it was left.”
And then, of course, the film came out and made all the money.