UPDATED: James Cameron’s sci-fi sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” dominated at the box office over Christmas even as a massive winter storm kept audiences at home.
Extreme weather conditions are pummeling a large portion of the U.S. with frigid temperatures, high winds and blankets of snow, contributing to lackluster turnout at the movies. For theater owners, it’s an especially disappointing coda to 2022 because they rely on the holiday season for bustling attendance. Hollywood was already concerned that grosses would be depressed because Christmas Eve falls on Saturday and Christmas lands on Sunday, cutting into the weekend numbers. With bad weather, as well as rising concerns about cases of COVID, RSV and the flu, a trio of new releases failed to resonate at the box office.
All three major new releases — Paramount’s glitzy showbiz epic “Babylon,” Universal and DreamWorks’ animated “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and Sony’s Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — as well as the “Avatar” sequel will attempt to make up ground in the next week. Many Americans take off between Christmas and New Years, so it’s a popular time to go to the movies.
Even with unfavorable circumstances, “Avatar: The Way of Water” managed to bring in solid numbers, earning a better-than-expected $64 million over the traditional weekend and $90 million through Monday. Disney and 20th Century initially projected the sequel would make $56 million over the weekend and $82 million through the four-day holiday frame. However, the film enjoyed a more robust turnout on Christmas. With those ticket sales, a 52% dip from its debut, “The Way of Water’s” domestic tally stands at $287 million.
The first “Avatar” faced similarly severe weather conditions when it opened in December 2009, but that didn’t prevent the film from, over time, crushing records with $760 million in North America and $2.92 billion globally.
With promising business during the week, the “Avatar” sequel has grossed $601 million internationally and $855.4 million globally, making it the fifth-highest grossing movie of 2022 after just 10 days in theaters. By the end of the year, the $350 million-budgeted tentpole is aiming to hit the $1 billion mark. Only two other movies, “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” have managed to hit that benchmark this year.
Far away from Pandora, the R-rated “Babylon,” directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, bombed with $3.6 million from 3,343 venues over the weekend and $5.3 million through Monday. The film’s especially terrible start, as well as its “C+” CinemaScore from audiences, suggests that even with winter blues, the 3-hour and 9-minute long “Babylon” may not have resonated on the big screen.
That’s a problem because the movie cost roughly $80 million to produce and tens of millions more to market, meaning the Oscar-hopeful will become a money loser unless business picks up in the coming days. The film’s international release in late January should help ticket sales. But barring a reversal in fortunes, “Babylon” may be the lone blemish in Paramount’s otherwise unexpectedly stellar year at the box office, with hits ranging from “Top Gun: Maverick” to the creepy thriller “Smile.”
David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, suggests there’s still room for optimism regarding “Babylon,” an over-the-top ode to Hollywood. “The film will get a boost if it picks up big awards nominations,” he says.
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a sequel set in the “Shrek” universe, landed in second place with $12 million from 4,099 locations over the weekend and $20 million through Monday, coming in slightly ahead of Sunday’s projections. Since the film opened on Wednesday, those ticket sales bring its domestic total to $26.9 million. The film has generated $32.5 million internationally and $57.2 million worldwide. Without any competition from family films until “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” opens in April 2023, the second “Puss in Boots” hopes to stay strong into the new year.
“It’s a charming film, and our audience reaction scores are stellar,” says Universal’s president of domestic distribution Jim Orr. “We’re going to have a stellar week.”
By comparison, the original “Puss in Boots” opened to $34 million in 2011 and eventually grossed $554 million globally, enough to merit a sequel. Since the $90 million-budgeted sequel, about a swashbuckling feline, has generated solid reviews and an “A” CinemaScore, analysts believe that weather played a significant part in lower-than-expected ticket sales. There was hope that the follow-up would earn $30 million in its inaugural weekend.
“This opening has been all but knocked out by extreme weather,” Gross adds. “With schools on holiday, the movie can recover some of its business next week.”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” secured third place with a disappointing $4.7 million from 3,625 cinemas over the weekend and $6.8 million through Monday, slightly below Sunday’s already low estimates. Heading into the weekend, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Babylon” were each projected to earn $12 million to $15 million over the extended holiday. It cost $45 million, less than the others in wide release, so the musical film won’t take as much to turn a profit. And audiences seemed to enjoy the movie, in which Naomi Ackie embodies the late pop icon Whitney Houston, awarding it an “A” CinemaScore, which is a good sign for its big-screen prospects.
Elsewhere, Disney and Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is nearing the $800 million mark. After seven weeks, the superhero sequel has grossed $427 million domestically and $799.5 million globally.
Overall, the domestic box office collected $86 million over the weekend, according to Comscore. Christmas Day is projected to bring in just $34.4 million, which will make it the lowest-grossing holiday (aside from 2020 when most theaters were still closed) in two decades.
“A slower-than-typical Christmas period should come as no surprise,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “Only five films opened in wide release in December, leaving the final week of the year out in the cold.”
(Updated on Dec. 26 with Monday’s estimates.)