James Cameron Gets Honest About Avatar And Other Blockbusters Rarely Winning Best Picture At The Oscars

Kiri in Avatar: The Way of Water.
(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Over the past couple of months, James Cameron has given us the long-awaited sequel to his 2009 blockbuster, Avatar: The Way of Water, as well as bringing Titanic back to theaters for its 25th anniversary.  The visionary director hasn’t won an Oscar since Titanic’s triumphant Best Picture win in 1998, and he gets honest about the chances of Avatar: The Way of Water and other major blockbusters winning Best Picture after the 2023 Oscar nominations rolled in.

James Cameron is certainly no stranger to the Academy Awards. The highest-grossing movie Titanic won a slew at the 70th Academy Awards, landing wins for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. Not to mention, Avatar got those same nominations twelve years later but lost Best Picture to The Hurt Locker. Now, in an interview with Time, the Oscar-winning director shares his honest thoughts on how he’s been feeling about the Academy’s choices for Best Picture winners lately.

How do you compare Tár to Avatar? How do you judge which one is better? It’s ludicrous on its face. I think it’s a bit elitist in a way that at least they shouldn’t be mystified as their audience numbers go down. It’s been a long time since a crowd pleaser won for Best Picture. From experience, it’s better to win than not win. It’s better to be nominated than not nominated, no matter how much you want intellectually to argue the whole thing away.

He makes some intriguing points, and I hadn't even thought to factor in that bit about the Oscars suffering from low ratings after a slew of indie wins. In 2020, the Academy Awards experienced the smallest audience to that point with a total viewership of 23.6 million people. That viewership total was 20% below the previous year. Per Variety, the pandemic ceremony in 2021 hit an even lower to 10.5 million. Last year’s ratings did rise up to 58% but still didn’t end up within the 40 million+ range the Academy Awards have seen in the past. 

Cameron also has another good point about movies that have gone on to win Best Picture as of late. One argument would be that the movie of the year could or should be the one that speaks to audiences the most and has achieved high box office number. 

For example, one of the biggest Oscar snubs of 2022 was Spider-Man: No Way Home which managed to top Avatar at the box office at the time it came out. Yet, there was no Best Picture nomination. It was only recognized with a Best Visual Effects nomination. 

The Academy does have a recent reputation for favoring movies with powerful messages over ones that take place in other worlds like in a Marvel movie or the new Star Wars films. A lot of the Best Picture nominees bring awareness towards heavy topics compared than focusing on visuals such as themes of sexual assault or the end of friendships. 

2023 Best Picture Nominees

All Quiet On the Western Front
Avatar: The Way of Water
The Banshees of Inisherin
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The Fabelmans
Top Gun: Maverick
Triangle of Sadness
Women Talking

Yet, when you think about it, this year is presenting us with movies that have achieved box office milestones, like Everything Everywhere All At Once doing wonders for A24’s box office records (and for visually demonstrating the multiverse without being a Marvel movie). We also can’t forget Top Gun: Maverick for continuously making money at the box office and for helping audiences be immersed in its flying cockpit scenes. So, there are some heavy lifters joining Avatar: The Way of Water in the Best Picture nominations category this year. 

In my opinion, the movie of the year should be the one that’s spoken the loudest to audiences. But, this isn’t the People’s Choice Awards and the members of the Academy ultimately get the final say. You can see for yourself who will be the lucky winner of the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards premiering on March 12th on ABC. Make sure to also check out our 2023 movie releases so you’ll know what’s next to add to your watchlist.

Carly Levy
Entertainment Writer

Just your average South Floridian cinephile who believes the pen is mightier than the sword.