20th Century Fox wanted to shorten Avatar before the premiere
James Cameron: "I just drew a line in the sand and said, 'You know what? I made 'Titanic.'"
The massive hit Avatar, which after almost 15 years still tops the list of highest-grossing films of all time, might not have been the same success if the film company had its way. 20th Century Fox felt that director James Cameron needed to shorten the film to get the green light, but he stood his ground and had one of his other films, Titanic, to help him. Although Avatar introduced Cameron to a younger cinema audience, he was still highly respected in his profession in Hollywood. It was still the director behind both Terminator films and Aliens and in 1997, 20th Century Fox released Titanic, which until Avatar was Cameron's most successful film and it was a film that was over three hours long.
In an interview with The New York Times (paywalled link), he explains how he was able to use his earlier work to persuade the studio that it would be wrong to cut Avatar. That the building they were now in was financed by the success of that film. One of the parts they wanted to cut was the numerous and lengthy flight scenes around Ikran, which would later prove to be one of the most appreciated elements of Avatar. In Cameron's own words:
"I think I felt, at the time, that we clashed over certain things. For example, the studio felt that the film should be shorter and that there was too much flying around on the Ikran-what the humans call the banshees. Well, it turns out that's what the audience loved the most, in terms of our exit polling and data gathering. And that's a place where I just drew a line in the sand and said, 'You know what? I made 'Titanic.' This building that we're meeting in right now, this new half-billion dollar complex on your lot? Titanic paid for that, so I get to do this.'"
So it was words, not rhetoric. He put his foot down and put a stop to the powerful film company's plans, something few directors, of course, had the opportunity to do. Exactly why 20th Century Fox wanted to shorten the film is something we are not told, but one theory is that they could have more simultaneous screenings and thus sell more tickets. As it turned out, the cinemas sold out anyway and perhaps it was because the director had to deliver his entire vision and not a cut-down one. Of course, we'll never know, but one thing is for sure and that is that for the upcoming sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, no one has questioned James Cameron's ability to make the right decisions.