James and Suzy Amis Cameron

NET WORTH: $700 million, estimated

SOURCE of WEALTH: Writer, producer, director

FUNDING AREAS: Environment, Exploration, TBD

OVERVIEW: James Cameron moves philanthropy through the Avatar Alliance Foundation to tackle issues of climate change, energy policy, deforestation, indigenous rights, ocean conservation and sustainable agriculture. Grantmaking so far has been modest and the foundation keeps a low profile.

BACKGROUND: James Cameron was born in Canada, and moved to Southern California with his family just before he finished high school. He briefly studied at Fullerton College before leaving to take a series of odd jobs, and teaching himself special effects in his spare time. Within a few years, he had made his own low-budget sci-fi short, and found a position as a production assistant on a feature film. After working on a number of films as an art director, special effects director, and similar roles, he got his first big break when he wrote The Terminator, and found a production company that would buy the screenplay and hire him to direct it. After the success of The Terminator, Cameron went on to produce other successful films, including Aliens, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar.


ENVIRONMENT: Cameron saw Avatar as an opportunity to talk about environmental issues, and to do something positive for the environment. As part of the Earth Day Network, Cameron created the Avatar Home Tree Initiative, which planted more than 1 million trees around the world, including about 500,000 as part of the effort to rebuild Haiti after its devastating earthquake. He also started the Avatar Alliance Foundation with his wife Suzy to focus on energy policy and climate change, and has said that “some percentage of the presumably massive Avatar sequel gross will go to charity."  Recent grantees have included African Wildlife Foundation, Center for American Progress, and University of Oxford toward the food climate research network.

In addition, Cameron and Suzy founded the Food Choice Taskforce, which is focused on showing the impact of animal agriculture on climate change and the environment. Suzy Amis Cameron also founded MUSE School, a progressive green-school in Southern California

EXPLORATION: Cameron, fascinated with underwater exploration, has said that he wanted to make Titanic because it allowed him to explore the wreck of the sunken ship. He spent $2.5 million building two remotely operated vehicles to explore the wreck, which he said eventually paid for themselves several times over. More recently, he teamed up with National Geographic, Rolex, and Microsoft’s Paul Allen to secretly build the Deepsea Challenger, which he piloted to the bottom of Challenger Deep in 2012. It was only the second manned dive to the deepest known place on Earth, and the first in more than 50 years, and required many technological innovations. In addition to scientific sampling equipment, the vessel was equipped with 3-D cameras, which Cameron used to film a documentary of his dive. The sub, which cost somewhere in the range of $8 million to build, has been donated to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

LOOKING FORWARD: Cameron’s announcement that a portion of the gross receipts from the Avatar sequels will go toward environmental causes has huge implications for his philanthropy. If the three planned sequels perform similarly to the original film, which grossed $2.7 billion at the box office, setting aside even a fraction of a percent could easily raise $50 million or more. Add in broadcast, DVD/blu-ray and merchandising deals, and it’s not hard to imagine a possible $100 to $200 million or more making its way to environmental causes.


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