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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What is the secret of James Cameron’s success?

James Cameron is the 12th highest-grossing director in film history, having earned $1.117 billion (and that’s just domestically) from just seven films. With Avatar, he is likely to surpass Chris Columbus, currently at No. 5… and if Avatar does Titanic business, he could catapult to the No. 3 spot, behind Robert Zemeckis and the king, Steven Spielberg. And unlike many of the directors currently ahead of him, none of his movies are based on world-famous comic-book characters, beloved works of literature, popular novels, theme-park rides, or toy lines, and only one is a sequel two are sequels: Aliens and Terminator II: Judgment Day.

To say that there’s been a lot of hype around Avatar is putting it mildly, but when you look at Cameron’s work, it suddenly doesn’t seem quite so unjustified… and the presumed achilles heel that might cut into its box office — that it’s not based on a franchise or characters that have a ready-made, built-in audience — looks ridiculous. None of his films have had that, and he overcame what could have been the biggest disadvantage a movie could have — the fact that everyone knows the ending — to make Titanic the biggest movie ever.
(Oh, and by the way, those who are saying that Cameron hasn’t made a movie since 1997’s Titanic are wrong: he made the IMAX documentaries Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. And they’re both fantastic.)

And now there’s Avatar. Early reviews — including my own — are rapturous, acknowledging that the film isn’t perfect but that’s it’s indescribably spectacular. The New York Film Critics Online (of which I’m not, FYI, a member) have named the film the best of the year, which — if history holds true — means it’s likely to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and perhaps even a win.

What is the secret of James Cameron’s success? Is it as simple as good filmmaking? Or is something else going on?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Bluejay

    only one is a sequel: Aliens.

    There’s Terminator 2.

  • chuck

    It is simple good film making. Loved Terminator, The Abyss and True Lies. The Abyss was ground breaking in effects, True Lies just plain fun. Terminator is a cultural icon. I guess this is what happens when you take a physics major / screenwriter and let him have his way.

    He gives us fresh stories, characters we can relate to and spectacle. What else do most people require from a Saturday afternoon movie?

  • Isobel

    I honestly have no idea – I’ve enjoyed some of his films (The Abyss, for example) but I have to say that I absolutely loathe and despise the biggie – Titanic (I get quite offended by it). Here’s hoping Avatar is more Abyss and less Titanic!

  • JoshDM

    The secret of his success is divorcing Linda Hamilton before Judgment Day, therefore removing him as a termination target.

  • Ken

    Bluejay (Mon Dec 14 09, 11:12AM)

    only one is a sequel: Aliens.

    There’s Terminator 2.

    Perhaps MaryAnn means that only one is a sequel to a movie on which he did not work (i.e. the success of Aliens can be attributed in part to a decent reaction to a movie which was not his work, whereas Cameron did work on the original Terminator.

  • Bluejay

    @Ken: Yeah, I thought of that after I posted. Still, Terminator 2‘s success was partly because of the public reaction to the first one, so that makes two Cameron movies (Aliens and T2) that were hits partly because of a built-in audience for previously existing films–ie. a film franchise. But yeah, I understand and agree with MaryAnn’s larger point.

    As for why he’s so successful… I think I agree with chuck on this, he just tells good stories really well. I’m sure the Hollywood machinery is geared to promote his films to the max, but in the end, no one can force audiences to see them, or force critics to write favorable reviews. The man’s got talent. (I confess his films aren’t ones I keep going back to, so I may need to rewatch them to remind myself why I enjoyed them so much the first time around.)

    Still–has he really made only seven films? Maybe if he were more prolific he’d come up with more duds. But maybe that’s the secret–pick your projects well, stick to your vision, and focus on quality, not quantity.

  • CB

    Perhaps MaryAnn means that only one is a sequel to a movie on which he did not work (i.e. the success of Aliens can be attributed in part to a decent reaction to a movie which was not his work, whereas Cameron did work on the original Terminator.

    Maybe. In either case, neither Aliens nor T2 were simply stat-padding cash-ins on successful franchises, but legitimately good movies on their own. Arguably two of the greatest sequels of all time that fully deserve their contribution to Cameron’s overall take.

    I think it does ultimately come down to just good film making. Not just that he’s capable of making good films, but committed to doing so. He also seems to be able to mix in the populist elements of action and adrenaline and soppy emotion without sacrificing the deeper aspect of the film. Basically he knows how to make great films that are also blockbusters. As compared to, say, Ridley Scott who makes great movies, but many are less approachable. Just a thought.

  • Brian

    I think Cameron has several major advantages going for him (look out; this turned into a mini-essay):

    1. Endless curiosity: If you look at both of Cameron’s sequels, they’re works that expand, deepen, and ask important questions about the original film. They’re successful as legit works of science fiction, and not “just” high-octane actioners — these are not the products of someone just out to make a flashy, fun piece of fluff.

    2. A technician’s mind: Cameron started as a self-taught effects technician and model maker, and has been deeply involved in the technical creation of all his films from the ground up. Meanwhile, he lavishes this detail on the worlds he creates inside the film: every piece of machinery you see in a Cameron movie looks like it would be absolutely functional if you switched it on, and furthermore, you can guess exactly how it’s used. I bet the guy has a working power-loader in his garage, actually.

    3. Strong feel for “everyman” (and “everywoman!”) characters: Cameron has an especially human touch with his working class and military characters – he understands what makes them tick and the cadences of their dialogue, and they ring true because of it. (I think this is actually why a lot of Titanic doesn’t ring true – conversely, he has very little feel for how to write upper-class characters who aren’t satirical in some way.)

    4. Command of the screen: Cameron’s control of shots, angles, camera motion, and action geography is impeccable. A Cameron action sequence might seem frenetic, but at any point the audience knows precisely where each character is, their exact relationship to the other characters and whatever is imperiling them, and how long it’s going to take for the peril to arrive. He cares about bringing the audience along for the ride, and not simply throwing a bunch of impressive crap at the screen in random order and dizzying motion. (Michael Bay, I’m comparing to you.) We’ll see how Avatar measures up there. I’m cautiously optimistic.

    I just hope Cameron’s still got all these qualities, or Avatar may turn out to be as disappointing as another over-hyped FX bonanza by a long-dormant sci-fi director . . . yes, I’m thinking about The Phantom Menace.

  • Brian

    Hmm, I realize that my ramblings just now have more to do with why Cameron’s movies are good, and not necessarily why they make a lot of money. But I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive by any means. :-)

  • Rocks

    Cameron may be the best at setting up and executing action sequences in all his movies. But his real strength is writing compelling, logical stories with strong characters. Usually by the time the bullets start flying we really care about his characters. His movies have a heart at the center of all this chaotic action. Most of his stories are about relationships and then the great action is just the icing on the cake. It should also be noted too that he writes very strong roles for women in all his movies. This is something we just don’t get from other action directors…..ah hem….Bay, Woo, etc. Spielberg is the exception….both Cameron and Speilberg…”get it.”….that’s why their movies stand out and we still watch them over and over a decade later.

  • Christina

    IDEAS. The man has great IDEAS. The building block for any movie hit. Well… ALMOST any movie hit.

    And yes, strong female characters – women who aren’t just disposable plot-accelerators. Makes for a nice change… and a female audience. Gotta love the guy.

  • CB

    1. Endless curiosity: If you look at both of Cameron’s sequels, they’re works that expand, deepen, and ask important questions about the original film. They’re successful as legit works of science fiction, and not “just” high-octane actioners — these are not the products of someone just out to make a flashy, fun piece of fluff.

    Yeah, I think that’s what I was getting at. He isn’t making movies that are “just” flashy and fun, yet flash and fun come along for the ride anyway in a seamless marriage.

  • Bluejay

    It should also be noted too that [Cameron] writes very strong roles for women in all his movies. This is something we just don’t get from other action directors…..ah hem….Bay, Woo, etc. Spielberg is the exception….both Cameron and Speilberg…”get it.”

    Hmm–when I think of Spielberg I don’t automatically think “very strong roles for women” (maybe with the exception of Marion Ravenwood). I remember his movies being strongly dominated by the male leads. But then I haven’t seen all his work, and not the most recent stuff; am I wrong?

  • Paul

    Glancing over a list of Spielberg’s movies, I would say they are more focused on male characters, but are mostly female friendly. Just because the female character isn’t the lead doesn’t mean the character isn’t sympathetic (Jaws) or interesting (Jurassic Park, Minority Report).

    But I have to hop on board with the idea that Cameron is consistently one of the best at making movies both interesting and entertaining.

  • Dr Rocketscience

    Perhaps MaryAnn means that only one is a sequel to a movie on which he did not work (i.e. the success of Aliens can be attributed in part to a decent reaction to a movie which was not his work, whereas Cameron did work on the original Terminator.

    No, she said sequel. T2 is a sequel. She probably ought to go back and amend the original blog entry. Or at least ETA a clarification.

    I suspect the larger point she’s trying to make is that he’s had success in the sci-fi/action genre doing original work. That is significant. John Scalzi recently wrote a piece for the AMC website in which he observed that of the top 20 money-making sci-fi flicks since 2000, 18 are at least one of: a sequel, a remake, or a comic book adaptation.

    Now, one could argue that the story of the Titanic is such a part of the cultural consciousness that any film about it could hardly be called an original work.

    And for the truly pedantic, James Cameron has made three sequels. ;-)

  • Dr Rocketscience

    And cause I’m feeling like a jerk (hee hee), True Lies was conceived and billed as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, produced at (or at least near) the height of his popularity. That’s a built-in audience if ever there was one.

  • David

    Like Dr. Rocketscience before me, I too feel like being a jerk. ^_^

    I believe that his success is largely (not entirely) due to hype. I can’t think of any of his movies that didn’t have a massive hype machine around it. He has been built up by a hugely successful marketing campaign.

  • amanohyo

    Ummm… how did I remain ignorant of the fact that Cameron is working on a Battle Angel Alita movie? That’s was one of my favorite comics as a kid. (Please oh please oh please pick an actual martial artist for the main role and not some graceless tween idol).

    I think Cameron really has a true love of science fiction. He’s a geek; that’s why his stuff has more substance (not a ton more, just a little) than the other big directors. He cares about the ideas underneath the story enough to explore them, and respects the audience enough not to beat them over the head with those ideas. As Brian mentioned, he also has a good, solid grasp of how to film an action scene and when special effects are appropriate.

    All that being said, True Lies is garbage, Titanic is a mediocre movie with nice effects, ditto for Terminator 2. I’m really looking forward to Battle Angel though, and I know nothing about it other than the books it’s based on.

  • Hdj

    Cameron isnt afraid of doing ideas that most directors and producers would say” oh that would be too hard to do, maybe you should keep your ideas to your self”. He is optimistic, no project is to big for him, he tries new things ( The Queen alien, T-1000 effects, the digital re-creation of the Titanic).

    Also with Sequels, I want to add that he did not 2 sequels but 3 sequels.
    “Piranha 2: the spawning” was his first movie. And like T2, Piranha 2 out does its predecessor in special effects, his sequel featured flying piranhas.

  • Bluejay

    Piranha 2 out does its predecessor in special effects, his sequel featured flying piranhas.

    He was responsible for that?? I always thought that was a ridiculous idea, at least from watching the trailers. (It kept reminding me of the “land shark” skit on SNL.) But then again I never saw that movie; maybe I missed out. ;-)

  • Muzz

    I, like most males of a certain age, had a lot of respect for him back in the day.
    Most still do, but I lost most of mine after he started cutting really awful scenes back into his movies that obviously shouldn’t be there. And then Titanic…
    I started wondering if whoever was restraining him in the early days wasn’t the real talent.

    I do have to remember that, although cloyingly un-self aware a lot of the time, at least he’s trying to be coherent and imaginative unlike most of your other big blockbuster guys of late (Bay, Mc G blah)

  • MaryAnn

    No, she said sequel. T2 is a sequel. She probably ought to go back and amend the original blog entry. Or at least ETA a clarification.

    Yup, that’s totally a mistake on my part. I don’t know how I overlooked T2 as a sequel.

    And that piranha movie was not successful and is not counted in his total box office take.

    Still–has he really made only seven films? Maybe if he were more prolific he’d come up with more duds. But maybe that’s the secret–pick your projects well, stick to your vision, and focus on quality, not quantity.

    Ah, but even bad films would have added to his total box office take, which isn’t weighed against budget but just tallies up what each of a director’s films had taken in at the box office.

    I, like most males of a certain age, had a lot of respect for him back in the day. [snip] And then Titanic…

    Okay, what the fuck does that mean, Muzz? In what ways does *Titanic* lessen your respect for Cameron?

  • A nitpickery comment here – he also co-wrote First Blood Part II: Rambo, which was also a sequel. (Which, in retrospect, was rather similar to Aliens.)

    Not to say that your point isn’t a valid one, MA.J. Cameron’s been pretty good at knowing when to stop (he didn’t have any interest in Terminator 3, for instance, and the rumours about the ditched True Lies 2 seem to be just that). He knows a good story too (though keep in mind that True Lies was a remake.)

    I just wish he’d get over the colour blue…

  • Dr Rocketscience

    In what ways does *Titanic* lessen your respect for Cameron?

    My guess: he doesn’t find it to be a particularly good film.

    I know I don’t. I don’t have a lot of love for True Lies, either. And I’m not certain T2 is aging well, bu that might be Terminator Franchise Overload. Amusingly, IMdB has Cameron attached to Terminator 5, god help us all.

    But I don’t know if I count in Muzz’s “males of a certain age”.

  • Muzz

    Okay, what the fuck does that mean, Muzz? In what ways does *Titanic* lessen your respect for Cameron?

    I have raised some ire. Do you want the whole thing or is the first part clear?
    I thought Titanic was terrible movie. It’s a stretch to call it bad, but I wasn’t buying it. I thought he was quite good at convincing settings and placing convincing characters in them until then (and some have suggested period may not be his thing, or straight romance, given the success though I guess no one else thinks so).
    There’s an element of rose tinted glasses to my view of Aliens and the Terminator movies, for sure (or The Abyss for that matter). I’ve seen it pointed out that the corn and clunkiness is actually in those films, even their original versions. But seeing him cut more back into those films and then make Titanic forced me to question my loyalty and/or notice my changing tastes. Take your pick.
    In any case, I’ve often speculated (wildly) that maybe it was Gale Anne Hurd and Kathryn Bigelow making a few pacing choices and telling him to cut certain things. But that’s got no weight to it at all, of course.

  • RogerBW

    Looking at Cameron’s list as a director, the last thing he did that I liked was T2. True Lies was just about OK but to my mind made huge missteps in an attempt to change its action style (which admittedly was looking a bit outmoded after Die Hard) into something new. I found Titanic unwatchable.

    So really I see him more as a director with massive early promise (T1, Aliens, Abyss, T2) which then fizzled.

    I really don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about total earnings without adjusting for inflation. I know the box-office guys like to talk about “biggest opening ever”, but counting buttons means nothing without considering how much the buttons are worth.

  • Bluejay

    Ah, but even bad films would have added to his total box office take, which isn’t weighed against budget but just tallies up what each of a director’s films had taken in at the box office.

    That’s true. I was assuming that “successful film” for purposes of this discussion also meant “critical acclaim,” since you mention early rave reviews and the NYFC award as markers of Avatar‘s success. But yes, if we’re just talking money, even duds would contribute to his take.

  • matth

    Well, I can’t speak for the American public, but what keeps me coming back to Cameron movies is his eye for violence. He has a unique gift for conveying the geography and the physics of action sequences so that they are intelligible to audiences, without making the scenes awkward or ponderous. (It’s interesting to compare Cameron with, say, the end of Miami Vice: Mann clearly cared about the geometry of the shoot-out, but failed to convey it clearly to the audience.)

    T2 provides some great examples: for instance, the sequence when the good guys are escaping from the mental institution with Sarah Connor. The protagonists are in a police car, while the T-1000 pursues them on foot. But because the T-1000 was hot on their heels when they stole the police car, they’re stuck driving it backwards, which slows them down. They finally have a chance to spin the car around, but lose enough momentum so that the T-1000 is able to catch the back of the car.

    It’s amazing to me that Cameron conveys the physical dynamics of this chase so rigorously that the audience intuitively appreciates that a car being driven backwards will lose enough speed, when it spins around, for the T-1000 to catch onto it. With many directors, the outcomes of chases and fights feel arbitrary. At their best, Cameron’s action scenes have the implacable physical logic of a sequence of dominoes falling.

  • matth

    And, BTW, Titanic is an absolutely terrific example of this. I still remember getting goosebumps when the ship’s designer tells the owner, “She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can [sink]. And she *will*. It is a mathematical certainty.” And Titanic did sink, as we knew it had to. The thrill was watching characters struggle within the confines of the laws of physics, not speculating about which laws of physics the director would suspend to produce the preferred outcome.

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