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?

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