There are plenty of valid reasons to be skeptical about “Avatar: The Way of Water”.
It’s been over a decade since James Cameron’s alien sci-fi epic ‘Avatar’ opened in theaters in 2009, surpassing expectations on its way to become the biggest film in history with worldwide ticket sales of $2.85 billion. But times, tastes and expectations at the box office have changed dramatically since moviegoers first came into contact with the Na’vi. In the ensuing years, theater owners have become more reliant on big-budget comic book glasses, and the 3D technology (despite Cameron’s best efforts) failed to take off in the way the filmmaker had hoped. Especially since the pandemic, there have been few multi-billion dollar hits outside of the superhero space.
“After 13 years, we are now in a different world, where superheroes dominate the fantasy action space,” said David A. Gross, who heads the film consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research.
But Cameron, the filmmaker behind behemoths like “Titanic” and “The Terminator,” has never missed the box office, so even cynics believe it’s probably unwise to bet against the billion-dollar director.
But the fate of the follow-up is uncertain. Will ‘The Way of Water’, the first of three planned sequels in Cameron’s sprawling futuristic series, be able to defy the odds of becoming a blockbuster? Or has the superhero-hungry audience become ambivalent about the visually captivating world of Pandora, and thus its long-delayed follow-up? The second “Avatar” movie, which brings back Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana and adds Kate Winslet and Michelle Yeoh to the mix, debuts December 16.
Disney and 20th Century have invested mind-boggling amounts of money into the evolving movie universe, including $250 million to produce “Avatar 2.” With that in mind, “The Way of Water” won’t suffice simply by putting large numbers on the till. It should be a sensation, to the rhythm of at least $1 billion worldwide, to please its backers and prove the naysayers wrong. After all, it’s the sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time – expectations will be sky high.
“Expectations will be much higher than the usual $1 billion threshold that most A-tier blockbusters are chasing, especially with the inevitable increase in ticket price for 3D and premium screens around the world,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box. OfficePro.
If the re-release of “Avatar” this weekend is any indication, Na’vi Nation appears to be alive and kicking. In anticipation of “The Way of Water,” Cameron remastered the original so Disney could bring it back to the big screen with flair. (And, of course, it’s a great marketing tactic for the upcoming episode.)
Over the weekend, the film generated $10 million from 1,980 North American theaters (most of which were Imax screens), enough to take third place on the box office charts behind newer releases such as Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling.” ($19.2 million) and the Viola Davis-led “The Woman King” ($11 million). In the rocky landscape of today’s box office, hitting double digits in one weekend is no small feat, especially for a film over a decade old. (Okay, it’s is doing help if the film already boasts as the most successful release of all time.)
“We’re talking about a 13-year-old movie that people can watch at home,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “The big draw is the Imax presentation. ‘Avatar’ reminds us how cool the images of Pandora look on the big screen.”
Box office watchers are especially encouraged by its rise at the international box office, where “Avatar” brought in $20.5 million from 50 overseas markets. It even managed to take the number 1 spot on the worldwide charts with a total of $30.5 million. The first film grossed a still-unmatched $2 billion internationally — over 70% of total revenue — so it’s vital that global audiences continue to feel invested in the journey of Jake Sully and his company.
But they’re returning at a time when the global movie market is dwindling, at least for Hollywood blockbusters. “Avatar 2” is unlikely to be played in Russia (where the first film made $117 million) due to the invasion of Ukraine. And in China (where the original grossed $261 million), a release date remains a question mark. But lately, as geopolitical tensions mount, the few Hollywood movies that have been granted access to Chinese cinemas have earned much less than expected. Since the pandemic, only “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick” have managed to become huge successes without China (the latest Spidey adventure did take place in Russia, while Tom Cruise’s blockbuster sequel did not). ). there is less room for error in major markets outside of China and Russia.
“The fate of ‘Avatar 2’ internationally will be the difference that Cameron’s sequel becomes just a big hit versus a global phenomenon,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
Before the original, over 80% of ticket sales came from 3D and premium formats thanks to the revolutionary use of CGI and motion capture technology. And while Imax and other high-quality, immersive displays are still popular today, 3D has almost fallen out of favor with moviegoers; the medium essentially collapsed after others tried to capitalize on the trend Cameron created with “Avatar.” For the sequel, Cameron has continued to push the cinematic boundaries by developing new motion capture technology for dazzling underwater scenes. However, it’s up to theater owners to decide whether it’s worth the expensive equipment upgrade to keep up with new technology. The choice comes down to one factor: how much does the public really, really care?
“James Cameron cannot doubt his ability to be one of the few filmmakers to revive interest in the format,” said Robbins. Still, he adds, “that will be the most important story to follow with the sequel, as the format has honestly lost its appeal with most moviegoers over the past 10 years.”
With the big screen premiere still months away, it’s too early to predict opening weekend estimates for “Avatar: The Way of Water,” though it’s expected to be better than its predecessor. When ‘Avatar’ debuted in 2009, the film didn’t exactly break records with its $77 million debut. But thanks to exceptional word of mouth, premium 3D pricing, and repeat customers, “Avatar” continued to defy expectations — think “Top Gun: Maverick” levels, but longer — and remained a huge draw for months on end. It was #1 for seven consecutive weeks, eventually climbing to $760 million in North America, one of only four domestic releases to ever surpass $750 million. Like the original, “The Way of Water” will premiere around the holidays, giving it a chance to take advantage of limited competition at the box office in the new year.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is sure to get big, but to get into the top 10 box office lists it needs to be watched repeatedly and become legs,” said Franchise Entertainment Research’s Gross. In addition, he says: ” It’s going to have to engage and expand the audience’s imagination, like the first movie did.”
With ‘The Way of Water’ Cameron has promised to ‘test the limits of what cinema can do’. Soon it will also test the cash register.