James Cameron Teaches You How to "Draw a Line in the Sand" When It Comes to Notes

James Cameron Pushes Back on Studio Notes
Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, director James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the 'Avatar' setCredit: Everett Collection
While we might not have James Cameron-level credits, we can still learn how to reject notes that don't work for the story we are telling.  

Before the release of the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron will bring the world of Avatar back to the theater. 

With Avatar being one of the most successful films of all time, grossing more than $2.8 billion worldwide and winning three Academy Awards, the decorated filmmaker looks back on the film with pride despite the challenges he had to face with the studio to keep his preferred edit, which ended up being the final cut of Avatar.  

Cameron revealed in an interview with the New York Times that he fought 20th Century Fox executives to keep sequences that were key to Avatar’s story. Cameron rejected the studio’s notes to make the film shorter by trimming the movie’s flying sequences.

He told the executives that Titanic paid for the “half-billion dollar complex on [its] lot.” 

James Cameron Pushes Back on Studio Notes
'Avatar'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Cameron and notes

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,” Cameron said.

Cameron further explained the situation, saying, “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.’”

Considering that Cameron has made the first and third highest-grossing films of all time (when unadjusted for inflation), the studio was smart to listen to Cameron’s instincts as a filmmaker. Cameron has a knack for knowing what works for a film and what audiences will find uninteresting in the overall story. 

Cameron is smart about what notes will work with his vision but also knows when to stand his ground and establish creative boundaries between himself and the studio.

“I feel that my job is to protect their investment, often against their own judgment. But as long as I protect their investment, all is forgiven,” Cameron said. 

James Cameron Pushes Back on Studio Notes
'Avatar'Credit: 20th Century Fox

What we can learn

Even though you are not James Cameron, you can still set boundaries and not accept notes that you feel do nothing for the story you want to tell. People do not always see eye to eye on what works and what doesn’t, but be polite and understand that executives have to protect their investments. 

Reassure the executives or producers you are working with that you are thinking about them as well and not being selfish. Also, check in with yourself and make sure that’s the truth. 

Whether or not you like it, filmmaking is all about collaboration.

If you want to accomplish something and have the story out for the world to see, then listen to those you are working with and keep an open mind. Sometimes a suggestion that you might not agree with turns out to be what makes the movie great. Other times, your pushback might improve the quality of the film.

It is also okay to fight for the scenes or a specific shot you want in the final edit of the film, but be kind and listen to those you work with. 

How you go about collaborating is up to you, but Cameron does have a piece of advice to give.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to do the best job we can and make it a moneymaker. But I don’t know how that translates artistically to any decision I make on the movie,” Cameron said. “When it’s good enough, you kind of know.”

Do you have a specific approach to accepting or rejecting notes? Let us know how you do it in the comments below!      

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