Jan. 4, 2010 -- In just two weeks, the new sci-fi movie "Avatar" has taken in an astonishing $1 billion at the worldwide box office.
While there's an enormous amount happening on-screen in the 3-D sci-fi epic, "Avatar" -- the strange, yet attractive, blue aliens, sweeping battle scenes and its unsubtle politics -- there is perhaps an equally compelling off-screen drama: its controversial director James Cameron, who has taken an extravagant risk, at a time when many in Hollywood and throughout the country are retrenching, afraid of taking big financial risks.
Well, Cameron took a risk, alright. He's made a roughly half-billion-dollar movie with no huge stars in 3-D, which most people associate with horror flicks and kids movies.
When ABC News spoke to Cameron a few weeks before "Avatar" was released, Cameron was understandably a little bit defensive about those who said it was too gimmicky to move large audiences, saying, "Everybody's talking about this movie but nobody's seen it. Obviously, we've seen the film, we know that it's quite a heart wrenching experience at times, it's a very emotional film."
Despite all the skepticism, Cameron poured his own money into developing new technology for the movie including three new types of cameras.
"We literally learned how to parachute on the way down. And that's what made it fun for me."
It's not the first time this 55-year-old, five-times-married junior college dropout from Canada has taken on such huge risks. His 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" ran so far overbudget that Cameron offered to give up his directing and producing fees. When it succeeded despite jabs from critics ... some thought he crowed a tad too loudly, by proclaiming himself "the king of the world" after "Titanic" swept the Oscars.
"Avatar" is following a similar story arc. Early reviews called it "'Dances With Wolves' in space" or "smurf-porn."
But Cameron now is the only filmmaker to direct two movies that have topped $1 billion. Along with "Titanic," the others are "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at $1.13 billion, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" at $1.06 billion and "The Dark Knight" at a fraction over $1 billion, according to box office tracker Hollywood.com. With "Avatar" closing in on No. 2 film "The Return of the King," Cameron is in striking distance of having the two top-grossing movies globally.
Of course, it helps that 75 percent of its domestic business is coming through higher priced 3-D ticket sales. As Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston told The Associated Press, "It's like a runaway freight train. It just keeps doing business. "
And the movie is only opening in China tonight.