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James Cameron’s Terrible Track Record as a Producer

Every movie the filmmaker oversees as a producer but not director has disappointed at the box office.
Linda Hamilton In Terminator Dark Fate
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 4th, 2019

When he’s the director of a movie, James Cameron has the Midas touch. When he’s the producer of a movie, not so much. The filmmaker behind Titanic and Avatar oversaw the production of two sci-fi releases in 2019, and both of them are flops. How does this happen to the King of the World? Especially when one of them is part of a popular franchise that he created?

There are many out there who will say the disappointing ticket sales for Alita: Battle Angel and now Terminator: Dark Fate are signs that Cameron’s eventually coming Avatar sequels are also doomed. But Cameron has never bombed as a director — no, not even with The Abyss. His track record as just a producer is another matter.

Cameron’s first credit as producer was on his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi noir Strange Days. He had been an executive producer on her previous effort, Point Break, which was a hit. But Strange Days grossed only a fraction of what it cost, selling only about 1.8 million tickets in its entire run for a domestic total of just under $8 million (about $16 million today) against a reported production budget of $42 million.

His next movie producing credit on someone else’s film was seven years later with Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris. Poorly marketed by Fox, the George Clooney-led sci-fi drama notoriously wound up with an F grade from audiences via CinemaScore. After selling about 1.2 million tickets in its opening weekend, the movie’s attendance dropped substantially as it went on and only sold another 1.4 million tickets during the rest of its 11-week theatrical run. That came out to $15 million domestic plus another $15 million internationally while the reported production budget on the movie was $47 million. Even the Cameron-helmed-and-produced IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss sold more tickets the following year.

Although we’re not counting releases for which Cameron was an executive producer, I do want to mention the 2011 movie Sanctum since it’s the only non-documentary, non-TV movie he worked on as any kind of producer between Solaris and his 2019 titles. And it does fit with his luck anyway. While domestically the Alister Grierson-directed drama only sold 2.9 million tickets (grossing $23 million), globally it managed more than $100 million on a reported $30 million production budget.

So that brings us to this year. Alita was a movie that Cameron had once planned on directing himself. Perhaps it would have been another huge, multi-billion-dollar hit were that the case. Instead, domestically the sci-fi spectacular had a weak debut and then grossed only half its reported production budget ($170 million) domestically. Fortunately, Alita wound up doing much better overseas, though even while topping out around $400 million worldwide it’s possible the movie still failed to break even. 

We’ll likely never see the intended sequels to Alita, and now we can be doubtful about the future of the Terminator franchise as well, despite Cameron’s desire for at least two more installments. Terminator: Dark Fate opened over the weekend drawing an estimated 3.2 million moviegoers in North America. That’s about equal to the ticket sales of Terminator Genisys four years ago. Maybe around 10,000 more. Yet the gross, $29 million, is only three-quarters what was anticipated given Box Office Pro’s long-range forecast in September ($38 million), and it’s even below last week’s updated prediction ($33.5 million).

Here is a ranking of the Terminator movies by domestic opening weekend attendance (and total domestic attendance):

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – 7.5 million (48.7 million)
2. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) – 7.3 million (24.9 million)
3. Terminator Salvation (2009) – 5.7 million (16.7 million)
4. Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) – 3.22 million (3.2 million)
5. Terminator Genisys (2015) –  3.21 million (10.6 million)
6. The Terminator (1984) – 1.2 million (11.4 million)

Dark Fate has a chance of ending up far better than Genisys in the long run or far worse, but domestically it’s likely not to be far off. What’s the reason for its failure on the homefront? The movie has the best reviews of the franchise since T2. Its CinemaScore is equal to all but the A-plus-graded T2. Its retconning of the series and reprisal of Linda Hamilton and the involvement of Cameron should have appealed to more fans than the confusing previous effort. But alas it’s a bit too late for an audience for whom franchise fatigue has really set in with so many lackluster installments. This may really be the end.

In other box office news, fellow new release Harriet performed better than expected while also receiving that rare perfect A-plus grade via CinemaScore. At this rate of success, the movie, which has garnered mixed reviews, could increase its luck this awards season, especially for potential acting contenders Cynthia Erivo, who plays American icon Harriet Tubman in the biopic, and standout supporting actress Janelle Monáe.

Of those movies reporting figures, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot officially had the best per-screen average playing at two theaters, Jojo Rabbit continued to appeal to the masses while expanding to 200 more locations, and Errol Morris’ Steven Bannon-focused documentary American Dharma, despite taking a long time to hit the big screen following disappointing marks from critics during its film festival debut in 2018, had a decent single-screen showing in New York City.

But according to IndieWire, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman really had the best per-screen average with an estimated $43,750 from each of its eight locations. Netflix doesn’t reveal box office grosses for their awards-qualifying theatrical runs but apparently the 209-minute crime epic has been selling out in spots in NYC and Los Angeles. Whether it’s just about audiences wanting to see it as soon as possible or preferring the theatrical experience rather than waiting to stream it later this month, The Irishman is in high demand and could continue that distinction as it goes a bit wider next weekend.

Here are the weekend’s top 12 domestic release titles by the estimated number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Terminator: Dark Fate – 3.2 million (3.2 million)
2. Joker – 1.5 million (33.2 million)
3. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – 1.4 million (9.4 million)
4. Harriet – 1.3 million (1.3 million)
5. The Addams Family – 0.9 million (9.5 million)
6. Zombieland: Double Tap – 0.8 million (6.6 million)
7. Countdown – 0.6 million (2 million)
8. Black and Blue – 0.45 million (1.7 million)
9. Motherless Brooklyn – 0.41 million (0.4 million)
10. Arctic Dogs – 0.3 million (0.3 million)
11. Parasite– 0.29 million (0.8 million)
12. Jojo Rabbit – 0.27 million (0.5 million)

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for keeping much of Box Office Mojo’s old box office data available!

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.