It’s been more than a decade since James Cameron’s “Avatar” shattered box office records. To this day, it remains the highest-grossing title globally, aided by several re-releases.
Its long-awaited sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” is also set to be a blockbuster, but how big of one remains to be seen.
The movie, which opens this week, is set to snare between $150 million and $175 million domestically during its opening weekend. If the film opens in that range, it will be the third-largest opening of 2022, just behind “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which tallied $187 million in May, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which scored $181 million last month, according to data from Comscore.
While the first movie only opened with $77 million in 2009, “Avatar” had unparalleled staying power at the box office. Released in December that year, it ran in theaters through August 2010, a whopping 234 days. The film ultimately generated $760 million in the U.S. and Canada and more than $2 billion from international markets.
“In the big picture, I’d expect a leggy box office run whose story won’t be told on opening weekend alone,” said Shawn Robbins, chief media analyst at BoxOffice.com. “This is not a comic book blockbuster with an apparent rabid fan base to front-load sales. James Cameron films have historically engaged general audiences deep into their theatrical windows, though it’s worth considering that the box office climate has changed even since his previous Avatar film in 2009.”
“The Way of Water” will have minimal box office competition until February and word of mouth could help the film hold on to lucrative premium screens like IMAX.
A three-dimensional release strategy
Premium formats will be a big factor in the film’s opening weekend and its overall box office run. Cameron and Disney have marketed “The Way of Water” as a must-see 3D movie, meaning the majority of showings for the film will require special glasses and a steeper ticket price.
In fact, a staggering 56% of seats heading into the film’s opening weekend have been programed for 3D showings, according to data from EntTelligence. For comparison, Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” only had 17% of its seats set aside for 3D.
Premium formats also come with a bigger price tag than their standard counterparts. EntTelligence estimates that for “The Way of Water” 3D tickets will average around $16.50 each while 2D will cost around $12.50 a piece.
This uptick in ticket prices is expected to buoy the film’s opening weekend numbers as well as its overall run in theaters. The movie will need the boost. Cameron told GQ that the film will need to become the third or fourth-highest grossing film in history to break even – meaning the film will need to crack the $2 billion mark globally.
The China factor
If “The Way of Water” is anything like the first film, it will get a major boost from international ticket sales. More than 70% of “Avatar” ticket sales came from foreign markets in 2009. And it will benefit from a release in China.
The Chinese box office contributed around $265 million to “Avatar’s” global tally a decade ago, but the market has grown significantly since. Prior to the pandemic, China was the second-highest grossing theatrical market in the world. Since cinemas reopened in the country, it has been one of the fastest markets to recover and generate box office success.
In 2009, China’s overall box office reached $910 million. A decade later, it topped $8 billion.
“Avatar” saw great success in China during its initial release, and subsequent rerelease in early 2021, as audiences flocked to cinemas to see the film in premium formats. These screenings are more expensive than traditional laser or digital showings and can bolster overall ticket sales.
Perhaps most important about “The Way of Water” China release is that it will take place on Dec. 16, the same day as its domestic debut. Disney saw success with this strategy when it released “Avengers: Endgame” on the same day in the U.S. and China, leading to the highest global opening weekend in cinematic history.
“The enormity of the stakes for ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ and its box office performance are profound on many fronts,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, noting that there are three other films in the Avatar franchise in development.