It's not just the magic he puts on screen. Nor is it that I found him to be among the best customers I've ever helped while toiling at Boders Books and Music. And he was a stellar customer on a very busy Saturday night. In a field of celebrity customers at the now defunct Santa Monica store who proved to be too irritating to live at times, he was a polite, gentlemanly standout. But that is not why I deem him worthy of heroic status.
A recent Businessweek magazine illustrates my reasons quite succinctly. While marveling at the success of Avatar, it noted that the film boasted no major stars as leads, it was not a sequel, it wasn't based on a bestselling novel or the Bible. And what does that title mean, anyway? Yes, the success of the film is astonishing. What flummoxes me more is How in the hairy heck did Cameron pull off getting it funded???!!!
Yes, yes, popular wisdom posits that the astounding box office from Titanic. And I am certain that the suits who green lit the project are now smugly pointing to the obvious wisdom of their decision and further obscuring the reality of the process. But funding this juggernaut was not such a sure thing a few years ago. And while I personally found Avatar to be the embodiment of why I go to a theater to see a film, I fully understand why.
Funding a film is a daunting, frustrating, sometimes soul crushing process run with mercurial individuals and entities and ruled by serendipity. No one who wasn't involved entirely believes how we got our first film funded. Looking back, I have trouble believing it myself. I know we could never replicate the circumstances. Since then, my partners and I have had dozens of meetings with funding sources from all walks of life. My personal favorite for bizarre was the chap with the enormous pentagram on his chest and the giant painting of Satan looming behind him. I still think that his terms were the most honest and above board. And yes, I have had meetings with studio suits. Satan dude didn't want to direct, nor did he have a significant other who always wanted to get into acting. I think that deal fell apart on points or a goat sacrifice. I can't recall now.
But I digress. A financially successful film is not a guarantee that funding the next film will be easy. And despite all the glad-handing and back slapping going on with the suits behind Avatar right now, getting that film funded was not an easy road for Cameron. Businessweek quotes him admitting to using $12 million of his own money in developing the film. I have a close friend who worked in a Special FX cubical farm at the Playa Vista location a few years back. He witnessed a number of suits from various studios and other sources touring the facility trying to grasp what Cameron was creating. Their checkbooks weren't automatically open despite Titanic's success. It may seem unimaginable that a man with that kind of lucrative film run would have to give tours and show off his wares in the hopes of attracting a deep-pocketed backer, but there are a number of factors at work against any film maker, even James Cameron. There's the 'but what have you done, lately?' issue. In LA, if you are out of sight, you are truly out of mind. Years spent doing things like undersea documentaries puts a filmmaker completely out of mind.
And then, there is the concept. It's original. Even the most casual movie goer will note that Hollywood's output has been a little thin where original concepts are concerned. If it's not a sequel, it's a re-make. On the film horizon, we have Clash of the Titans (with Avatar's heroic Sam Worthington) and the A-Team. In the case of Spiderman, we have a case of a sequel that turned into a remake. Of late, studios aren't know for spending huge bucks to step out on a limb creatively. And this is what makes James Cameron my hero. I can just see him explaining to the sort of suits more inclined to fund something with the word Sqeakuel in the title that for 3/4ths of a very long film, his leads (that most people had never heard of) will be animated ten foot tall blue people with tails and loincloths. But wait, it gets better. The stalwart marines are not the good guys. The film will be made to be best viewed with a technology that may or may not be in enough theaters to begin to make the money back. And the film will need more money than has ever been spent before in history. Though if inflation is factored in (and everyone insists on doing that with Avatar) the prize for spending still belongs to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra. And though I love that big, cheesy film, I'm sure that no film wants to be considered in the same sentence with it. And the core youth audience Avatar is aimed at (the only people who understand what the title means) were little children when Titanic was released. I bet crickets could be heard at the end of that pitch. How many of these meetings ended with the suits beating a hasty retreat for the parking lot?
I suppose it doesn't matter how many meetings ended badly. Somehow, Cameron got through where it mattered. But what did he say, and how did he say it? It must be some super hero power that can make studios take a big risk on a wholly original concept. He gives me hope to keep pushing. For that, James Cameron is my hero.