After years of development and production, James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel has reached judgment day.
Disney and 20th Century Studios’ “The Way of Water” took flight at the box office with a solid $53 million gross from 4,202 locations in its opening day, a figure that includes $17 million in Thursday previews. That ranks as the sixth highest first-day domestic gross of the year, lower than those earned by “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($90.7 million), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($84.2 million), “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($69.5 million), “Jurassic World Dominion” ($59.5 million) and “The Batman” ($56.6 million). It’s also a good deal higher than the $26.7 million opening day that the first “Avatar” landed in 2009, though the sequel arrives with the benefit of Thursday previews and years of anticipation.
It’s all eyes on “The Way of Water” as it hopes to mount a bountiful box office run; it isn’t every weekend that theaters receive a sequel to the highest-grossing film ever. When the first “Avatar” landed a domestic opening of $77 million in 2009, many reports were underwhelmed by the initial performance, pointing to the film’s highly mythologized production process and Cameron’s superlative box office success with 1997’s “Titanic,” then the highest-grossing film ever. But with premium format subcharges and phenomenal holds extending months later, “Avatar” stayed strong, eventually toppling “Titanic” to take on the all-time record.
With very little competition throughout the holidays, “The Way of Water” hopes to mount a similar word-of-mouth driven blockbuster run. The film has received strong raves from some critics without being unanimously praised, currently holding a 73% approval rating from top critics on review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. General audiences seem to be much more positive; the film earned an “A” grade through research firm Cinema Score, indicating strong approval among the first round of ticket buyers.
It isn’t just a matter of seeing if Cameron’s latest can fully justify its whopping reported $350 million production budget (much less match the financial success of his previous films). “The Way of Water” comes at a time when exhibitors are thirsting for an event to drum up business through the holidays. Total box office grosses for the year will likely finish an alarming chunk down from pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019. And after an auspicious summer season featuring a variety of hits, theater foot traffic has dwindled through the fall season, with little other than “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” really drawing crowds.
On that topic, the superhero sequel is now the second-highest grossing film of the year at the domestic box office, surpassing the $411 million gross of its fellow Marvel entry “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” “Wakanda Forever” should take a distant second on domestic charts this weekend, projecting a $5 million haul to pad its North American total gross to $418 million.
Universal’s holiday action film “Violent Night” could contend with “Black Panther 2” for silver. The film is also projecting roughly $5 million for the weekend, 42% down from its previous outing. Total domestic gross now stands at a solid $30 million for “Violent Night.”
Disney’s “Strange World” looks to take fourth. After earning about $510,000 on Friday, domestic ticket sales now stand at roughly $30 million. It remains a disastrous performance for the animated adventure, which carries a reported $180 million production budget.
Searchlight Pictures’ “The Menu” will round out the top five, projecting a $1.5 million haul in its fifth weekend of release. With more than $30 million in domestic ticket sales, the culinary comedy has been one of the few specialty titles to find a substantial audience in recent months.