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Warner Bros.’ failed ”Harry Potter“ spinoff series provides a warning for what James Cameron’s sci-fi saga could become

“Avatar: The Way of Water” has finally arrived, signaling the start of what could be one of the biggest hit franchises ever to hit the box office. But that will come down to whether director James Cameron can hook audiences worldwide for the long haul — and we’ve recently seen what happens to franchises that can’t do that.

Earlier this year, Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts,” a spinoff series based on JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, likely suffered its death knell with the weak performance of its third installment, “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” a film that barely broke even at the box office with a overall total of $405 million. It’s roughly half of the $814 million that the first “Fantastic Beasts” grossed and a tough end to a saga that JK Rowling announced at its inception would be a five-film series.

While Warner Bros. goes back to the drawing board on how to keep “Harry Potter” and Wizarding World going, Cameron has touted his vision to transform “Avatar” into a long-running saga that spans generations of Jake Sully’s family. Currently, Disney/20th Century Studios has plans to release “Avatar” films every two years, with a third installment already in post-production ahead of a 2024 release and Cameron starting work on fourth and fifth films for release in 2026 and 2028.

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While Cameron is continuing his ambitious work, he has said in interviews that “Avatar 3” is designed to be a possible trilogy capper if the box office numbers don’t give him the green light for more films. There is little doubt that “Avatar: The Way of Water” will be a huge moneymaker, with rival studios expecting the film to gross at least $1 billion and likely much more. But it will have to do more than that to get moviegoers around the world eager to come back for a third, fourth or even fifth sequel.

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The most common argument leveled against “Avatar” by its legions of critics is that it had “no cultural impact,” at least not when compared to other films that held the title of highest-grossing film in box office history. “The Godfather,” “ET,” “Jurassic Park” and Cameron’s own “Titanic” all became cinematic touchstones with characters still beloved today, and Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” became a global cultural event we may never see again.

“Avatar” is mostly known for its incredible theatrical run and perhaps for its theme park rides in Orlando, but, as the critics’ argument goes, who remembers the names of the protagonists? One might argue in retort that the strong box office tracking and early critical praise of “Avatar: The Way of Water” show that Cameron and his team have indeed left a cultural legacy, weaving a uniquely immersive experience in theaters that millions are eager to return to after over a decade of waiting.

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