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James Cameron’s long-delayed “Avatar: The Way of Water” launched at the international box office, collecting $15.8 million from 15 overseas markets on opening day.

Disney, which is backing the ambitious sequel, says ticket sales were 124% ahead of “Avatar,” roughly 70% ahead of “Top Gun: Maverick” and 13% ahead of “Jurassic World: Dominion.” Though “The Way of Water” is expected to reach blockbuster status, it may fall short of record-setting numbers in its inaugural weekend. The studio is also reporting that initial returns were 12% behind “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and 23% behind “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in comparable markets, two recent tentpoles that notched mega debuts.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” enjoyed the strongest start in Korea with $3.3 million, followed by France with $2.9 million, Germany with $2.5 million and Italy with $1.6 million.

Ahead of opening day, “Avatar” posted robust preview numbers (not included in the $15.8 million opening day figure), including $1.5 million in Mexico, $1.3 million in Australia, $1 million in Brazil and $4.4 million across Latin America.

In China, a hugely important market for “Avatar 2,” advanced sneaks on Wednesday accounted for $2.6 million (also not included in the opening day number) from a very limited 1,688 shows. There’s hope that Chinese movie theaters will deliver $100 million during its first weekend. However, COVID flare-ups in the country, as well as theater closures (only 77% of cinemas are open), have put box office expectations in limbo. “The Way of Water” one of this year’s few Hollywood movies granted access to play in China, where the original became a sensation with $261 million. 

There’s outsized importance on the international box office, where the first “Avatar” made over $2 billion — nearly 70% of its total earnings. It’s opening day-and-date in every major market other than Russia. “Avatar 2” is poised to collect at least $250 million to $350 million internationally, with the potential for global ticket sales to reach $400 million to $500 million by Sunday.

In North America, the “Avatar” sequel is projected to generate $150 million to $175 million in its debut. Beyond a strong opening weekend, “The Way of Water” will need to stick around in theaters well into the new year to justify its existence, at least financially speaking. That was the winning formula for the first “Avatar,” which debuted in 2009 with a solid but unspectacular $77 million domestically. But the film had unparalleled staying power, and ticket sales eventually climbed to $760 million in North America and $2.92 billion globally, including subsequent re-releases.

The sequel to “Avatar” cost a reported $350 million, making it one of the priciest blockbusters in history. It also means the threshold to commercial glory is stratospheric. Cameron has indicated it needs to be “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” just to break even. There’s a lot riding on “The Way of Water,” not just because of its exorbitant price tag, but also because it’s the first of three planned follow-ups in Cameron’s sprawling futuristic series.

Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver returned for “Avatar 2,” which follows the Sully family underwater as they battle the elements to stay alive and keep each other safe. Despite sky-high expectations, critics have been receptive to the movie, which holds an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. In Variety’s review, chief film critic Owen Gleiberman praised the director’s vision, writing “Cameron,” a four-decade veteran of bravura action logistics, has lost none of his mojo.”

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