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Movie Theaters Brace for Holiday Box Office Dominated by ‘Avatar 2’ … and Little Else

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), Jake Sully (voice: Sam Worthington), 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a sequel to the highest-grossing movie in history, is poised to be another box office smash for director James Cameron and Disney, which now owns the rights to Pandora and its inhabitants. The follow-up, which opens in theaters on Dec. 16, looks to collect a mighty $150 million to $175 million in its first weekend of release.

For beleaguered movie theaters, the decades-in-the-making film can’t come soon enough. “It’s a very important movie,” says Brock Bagby, executive VP of B&B Theatres, a family-owned circuit based in Missouri. “We’re hopeful it works.”

But the Na’vi, as powerful and resilient as they may be, can’t prop up the movie theater business alone. Will any movies other than “Avatar 2” manage to succeed at the box office over the crucial holiday season?

After a dire Thanksgiving — one of the worst in modern history — cinema operators may be rightfully wary about foot traffic through the rest of the year. With films targeted to adults struggling, they are pinning their holiday hopes on movies with broad appeal, including “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a sequel in the “Shrek” universe.

“I was just asking myself, ‘What am I going to play at Christmas besides “Puss in Boots’ and ‘Avatar’?” asks Mark O’Meara, who runs Cinema Arts Theatres and University Mall Theatres in Virginia. “I’m going to live and die by ‘Puss in Boots’…There are a couple of saving graces, but not enough.”

Jeff Logan, owner of South Dakota-based Logan Luxury Theatres, is similarly concerned about the pipeline. “Usually at Christmas, we have a limited number of screens, and we have to pick and choose which movie to go with,” he says. “This year, we weren’t faced with that problem.”

And that’s an issue because multiplexes need momentum to keep people coming back. “One or two pictures can’t keep a theater open,” Logan adds. “We need a flow of product.”

It’s not lingering COVID fears that’s causing the slowdown in attendance. After all, summer was unexpectedly strong as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” were propelled to blockbuster status. But the next few months were desolate, sparking fears that felt uncomfortably similar to peak pandemic times when theaters were completely closed and unable to bring in business.

“Summer was a shot in the arm, but this was a disastrous September,” Logan says. “A lot of profits were eaten up.”

In terms of newer winter offerings, Universal’s Santa Claus thriller “Violent Night,” starring David Harbour, could benefit from word-of-mouth after slightly surpassing expectations with $13 million. Meanwhile, A24 hopes the renaissance of Brendan Fraser is alive and well as “The Whale” debuts in limited release this weekend, along with “Empire of Light,” a Searchlight drama from filmmaker Sam Mendes and star Olivia Colman.

Will these films buck the trend of underperforming awards season hopefuls or will older moviegoers remain selective about what’s worth the price of admission these days?

The “Puss in Boots” sequel will kick off the Christmas season in earnest on Dec. 21, leaving director Damien Chazelle’s showbiz epic “Babylon” and Sony’s Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to close out the year.

“‘Babylon’ looks very good,” says Logan, who expects similar grosses to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” But he recognizes a lot has changed at the movies since Quentin Tarantino’s ode to showbiz opened in 2019. “I don’t know if the average Joe cares about decadence in Hollywood, and the 1920s is a tough decade to sell to today’s audiences. It was so long ago.”

The calendar is emptier than many had hoped because the rest of Hollywood wanted to steer clear of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is likely to dominate well into 2023. Even with 38% fewer new releases compared to pre-pandemic times, though, movie theater owners feel there’s no choice but to stay optimistic.

“Do we wish there was more product? Absolutely,” Bagby says. “But 2023 is even more loaded up. By 2024, we think it’ll be back to normal.”