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After just 22 days in theaters, “Avatar: The Way of Water” has raked in $1.5 billion globally, overtaking “Top Gun: Maverick” to stand as the 10th-highest grossing movie in history.

It’s a remarkable achievement, especially because opening weekend returns were less stratospheric than Hollywood had anticipated. But James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel was the de facto choice at the movies over the busy holiday season, propelling the sci-fi blockbuster to juggernaut status.

The film’s stellar turnout — driven by repeat customers, Imax prices and top-notch audience scores — is necessary, and not only in providing a lifeline to beleaguered theater owners. Since Disney, which holds the rights to “Avatar” after acquiring 20th Century Fox in 2019, spent at least $350 million to make “Avatar” and more than $100 million more to market the grand return to Pandora, Cameron suggested the film needed to gross $2 billion globally to become financially successful. Plus, he’s already planning to make three more sequels.

There’s a popular adage among distribution executives that you can’t judge a film based on its opening weekend alone, and that proved to be true in the case of “The Way of Water” and its $134 million start. It was similarly accurate for the first film, which debuted in 2009 to $77 million domestically and eventually became the highest-grossing release in history with $2.9 billion globally. Given the exceptionally long theatrical run of the original, as well as the altered post-pandemic landscape, industry watchers feel the sequel’s ultimate box office potential can’t be accurately assessed until long after the holiday season.

Already, the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s proved lucrative, reaffirming the public’s affinity for the Na’vi. Now that “The Way of Water has demonstrated its staying power, insiders believe the aquatic action adventure is going to generate a minimum of $1.825 billion. Moreover, it has a real shot at crossing $2 billion worldwide, a nearly impossible benchmark in COVID times. Even “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which became a sensation at the end of 2021, fell just shy with a still-staggering $1.9 billion (without playing in China).

At the domestic box office, “The Way of Water” has grossed $464 million to date. For analysts, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has been the main reference point in terms of anticipating the trajectory of “Avatar 2” because the 2016 tentpole also opened as Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fell on Sundays. “Rogue One” opened to $155 million and ended its theatrical run with $533 million, a healthy result that carried its global tally past $1 billion. (“The Way of Water” has already crushed the “Star Wars” installment at the international box office with $1 billion in just overseas ticket sales. “Rogue One” wasn’t as popular internationally, where the film generated $525 million.) On its third Tuesday in theaters, domestic ticket sales for the “Avatar” follow-up were encouragingly up 65% over “Rogue One” at the same point in its run. It’s a promising sign that North American revenues for “The Way of Water” have the potential to reach at least $600 million. The first “Avatar” collected $785 million domestically and an eye-popping $2.1 billion overseas, including re-releases.

At the international box office, standout markets have been France (where the film is imminently crossing $100 million), Germany (where it just passed $75 million) and India (where it’s hit a mighty $51 million). Even in China, where initial ticket sales fell dramatically short of expectations, attendance has managed to rebound in the following weeks. After its lackluster start in the country, there were expectations that revenues would top out at $120 million. But it has already surpassed $168 million in China, leading analysts to revise its ultimate forecast to $200 million or more. So far, “F9: The Fast Saga” with $216 million is the highest grossing pandemic-era Hollywood movie in China.

There are notable obstacles to reaching record-book status. For one, the follow-up isn’t playing in Russia, where the original grossed $116 million. And the sequel has generated a dismal $20 million in Japan, a dramatic decrease from the first film’s $176 million haul.

In order to surpass $2 billion, a feat that’s only been accomplished by five films ever, “Avatar: The Way of Water” can’t rely on outperforming expectations in the two biggest markets, China or North America. It needs to continue to play to audiences, of every age and demographic, across the globe. It’s been able to succeed so far because it’s a true four-quadrant blockbuster, appealing to every moviegoer — males, females, young and old. It’s rare today to find a tentpole that manages to be family-friendly without involving superheroes or comic book lore. By comparison, “Top Gun: Maverick,” another enduring blockbuster, initially played to older audiences until it became inescapably zeitgeist-y and later enticed millennial and Gen Z ticket buyers.

“Avatar 2” has a clear runway without major big-screen competition for five more weeks. As a result, there’s little chance that exhibitors will be taking “The Way of Water” off its screens until Disney and Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” hits theaters on Feb. 17. Blumhouse’s campy thriller “M3GAN” and Channing Tatum’s “Magic Mike Last Dance” will open in between, but neither of those films are expected to cannibalize the attention for “Avatar.”

If “The Way of Water” manages to join the elusive $2 billion club, Cameron will be responsible for three of the six-highest grossing movies in history, including “Avatar” and “Titanic” ($2.2 billion). It’s been an oft-repeated mantra in the lead-up to the long-delayed sequel, but it’s also impossible to deny: Never bet against James Cameron.

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