‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Lands China Theatrical Release

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Disney/20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water” has landed a theatrical release date in China in a victory for the expensive 20th Century Studios production’s box office potential.

20th Century Studios confirmed plans for the release through an official post on Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms. The company also shared a trailer for the film, as well as a new poster

James Cameron’s much-anticipated sequel to his 2009 sci-fi epic will hit theaters in the country on Dec. 16 — the same date that the film will release in other territories, including North America. It will play in regular and Imax theaters.

The first “Avatar” currently stands as the highest-grossing film in history at the global box office, unadjusted for inflation. Of its massive $2.74 billion in ticket sales, roughly $202 million of that total came from China across its initial theatrical release and subsequent rerelease in 2021.

With “The Way of Water” now officially set to hit theaters in China, the sequel can expect to benefit from a high degree of enthusiasm among viewers who were fans of the first film. Director James Cameron also has a high profile in China. While his “Titanic” was not initially released in China at the same time as the rest of the world, it had a limited release in 1998 and played on Chinese TV networks. When the remastered 3D version was released in 2012, it grossed $58 million in its opening weekend.

While the country served as a reliable boost to North American films throughout the 2010s, government regulators have cut Hollywood’s access to the Chinese market in recent years, as the country’s own filmmaking economy has expanded and as political considerations have weighed more heavily. Even recent Marvel tentpoles have been barred; there has not been a Chinese release of a Marvel movie since 2019.

Other factors including LGBT themes and filmmakers and actors who are perceived to be anti-China, have also weighed against some of Hollywood’s biggest tentpoles getting into China.

Chinese authorities have only granted import and distribution permits to a handful of foreign films this year. This appears be born of the diplomatic and economic Cold War currently being waged between the U.S. and China, as well as a desire to promote ‘main melody’ or patriotic local films in Chinese theaters. China’s explicit linkage between the state of political relations and film imports was underlined again this week in editorials by state-owned media, which hailed the streaming release of a Korean movie for the first time in nearly six years.

The inclusion of “Avatar 2” on the Chinese releasing calendar then will come as a huge relief to Chinese exhibitors which have suffered a shortage of international and top local titles this year. Cinema operators have also been hit by rolling waves of theater closures as new COVID outbreaks continue to resurface in China, causing local authorities to lock down entire cities, restrict travel and enforce strict testing regimes.

The releasing drought has weighed heavily on China box office this year. After being the world’s biggest theatrical market in both 2020 and 2021, mainland China box office this year is down by 35% compared with last year and only last week passed the $4 billion milestone, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway.

20th Century Studios and parent company Disney will breathe a sigh of relief that “The Way of Water” has been granted a release in the country. The long-gestating sequel carries a reported production budget of $250 million, along with the additional costs of marketing and distribution. Meanwhile, director Cameron has boasted that the financial burden stands even higher, stating that a “break-even” point couldn’t be achieved unless the film became the “fourth or fifth-highest grossing film in history.” With a massive budget to recoup and a third franchise entry already on the way, “The Way of Water” will need all the ticket sales it can get.