There are plenty of valid reasons to be skeptical about “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
It’s been more than a decade since James Cameron’s otherworldly sci-fi epic “Avatar” opened in theaters in 2009, smashing projections on its way to becoming the biggest movie in history with $2.85 billion in global ticket sales. But times, tastes and box office expectations have changed drastically since moviegoers first made contact with the Na’vi. In the ensuing years, theater owners have developed a greater reliance on big-budget comic book spectacles, and 3D technology (despite Cameron’s best efforts) failed to take off in the way the filmmaker had hoped. Especially since the pandemic, billion-dollar hits outside of the superhero space have been few and far between.
“After 13 years, we’re in a different world now, where superheroes dominate the fantasy action space,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research.
But Cameron, the filmmaker behind behemoths like “Titanic” and “The Terminator,” has never missed at the box office, so even cynics believe that it’s probably unwise to bet against the multi-billion-dollar earning director.
Yet the fate of the follow-up is uncertain. Will “The Way of Water,” the first of three planned sequels in Cameron’s sprawling futuristic series, be able to defy the odds to become a box office smash? Or have superhero-hungry audiences grown ambivalent about the visually captivating world of Pandora, and thus, the long-delayed movie? The second “Avatar” film, which brings back Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana and adds Kate Winslet into the mix, debuts on Dec. 16.
Disney and 20th Century have invested mind-boggling amounts of money in the evolving cinematic universe, including $250 million to produce “Avatar 2.” With that in mind, “The Way of Water” won’t satisfy by simply putting up big numbers at the box office. It needs to become a sensation, to the tune of at least $1 billion globally, to please its backers and prove the naysayers wrong. After all, it’s the sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time — expectations will be towering.
“Expectations are going to be much higher than the usual $1 billion threshold most A-tier blockbusters chase, especially with the inevitable ticket price boost from 3D and premium screens around the world,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro.
If this weekend’s re-release of “Avatar” is any indication, Na’vi Nation appears to be alive and well. In anticipation of “The Way of Water,” Cameron remastered the original so Disney could bring it back to the big screen with flair. (And, of course, it’s a killer marketing tactic for the upcoming installment.)
Over the weekend, the film generated $10 million from 1,980 North American theaters (most of which were Imax screens), enough to place third on box office charts behind newer releases like Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” ($19.2 million) and the Viola Davis-led “The Woman King” ($11 million). In today’s rocky box office landscape, hitting double-digits in a single weekend is no small feat — especially for a movie that’s more than a decade old. (OK, it does help when the movie already has bragging rights as the most successful release of all time.)
“We’re talking about a film that’s 13 years old, which people can watch at home,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “The big draw is the Imax presentation. ‘Avatar’ is serving as a reminder of how cool the imagery of Pandora looks on the big screen.”
Box office watchers are especially encouraged by the turnout at the international box office, where “Avatar” brought in $20.5 million from 50 overseas markets. It even managed to take the No. 1 spot on global charts with $30.5 million in total. The first film made a still-unmatched $2 billion — over 70% of its total grosses — internationally, so it’s vital that global audiences continue to feel invested in the journey of Jake Sully and company.
But they’re returning at a time when the worldwide film market is diminishing, at least for Hollywood blockbusters. “Avatar 2” likely won’t be playing in Russia (where the first movie earned $117 million) due to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. And in China (where the original generated $261 million), a release date remains a question mark. But lately, as geo-political tensions rise, the few Hollywood films that have been granted access to Chinese movie theaters have earned far less than anticipated. Since the pandemic, only “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick” have managed to become huge successes without China (the latest Spidey adventure did play in Russia, while Tom Cruise’s blockbuster sequel did not.) That means there’s less room for error in major markets outside of China and Russia.
“The fate of ‘Avatar 2’ internationally will be the difference in Cameron’s sequel becoming merely a sizable hit, versus a worldwide phenomenon,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
For the original, more than 80% of ticket sales came from 3D and premium formats due to the movie’s revolutionary use of CGI and motion capture technology. And while Imax and other high-quality, immersive screens remain popular today, 3D has all but fallen out of favor with moviegoers; the medium essentially collapsed after others attempted to capitalize on the trend that Cameron created with “Avatar.” For the sequel, Cameron has continued to push cinematic boundaries by developing new motion capture technology for dazzling underwater sequences. It’s up to theater owners, however, to decide if it’s worth the expensive equipment upgrade to keep up with new technology. The choice comes down to one factor: how much do audiences really, truly care?
“James Cameron should not be doubted in his ability to reinvigorate interest in the format as one of the few filmmakers to utilize it effectively,” says Robbins. Still, he adds, “that will be the important narrative to track with the sequel because the format has, frankly, lost appeal with most moviegoers over the last 10 years.”
With its big-screen premiere still months away, it’s too early to predict opening weekend estimates for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” though it’s expected to improve upon its predecessor. When “Avatar” debuted in 2009, the film didn’t exactly break records with its $77 million debut. But thanks to exceptional word-of-mouth, premium 3D prices and repeat customers, “Avatar” kept defying expectations — think “Top Gun: Maverick”-level legs, but longer — and remained a huge draw for months. It held the No. 1 spot for seven consecutive weeks and eventually climbed to $760 million in North America, one of only four domestic releases to ever surpass $750 million. Like the original, “The Way of Water” premieres around the holidays so it has the chance to benefit from limited competition at the box office into the new year.
“‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ will certainly open big, but in order to land on top-10 box office lists, it’s going to need repeat viewing and legs,” says Franchise Entertainment Research’s Gross. Moreover, he says, “It’s going to need to engage and expand audiences’ imagination the way the first film did.”
With “The Way of Water,” Cameron has promised to “test the limits of what cinema can do.” Soon, it’ll test the box office as well.