Right at the top with “Nobody Knows Anything” is a Hollywood axiom: never underestimate James Cameron.
Thirteen years after Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi juggernaut Avatar broke global box office records, many wondered if the filmmaker could repeat history with a sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water. Would Cameron once again overcome the chorus of naysayers like he did 25 years ago with another water-based blockbuster, Titanic? Or would he get all wet this time?
When it premiered this weekend, Avatar: The Way of Water easily dominated the box office, grossing $134 million in North American theaters and an additional $301 million internationally.
But while the debut was certainly impressive enough to calm doubters, it still fell below pre-release projections, which ranged from $150 million to $175 million domestically, at least for now, raising questions about Cameron’s costly company will ultimately be profitable in the long term.
Ahead of the film’s release, Cameron himself suggested that The Way of Water – which cost at least $350 million to produce before it was released to the public – would need to ultimately gross around $2 billion to be considered a success and crack the top 5 most successful films of all time. (Cameron already holds two of the top 3 films of all time worldwide, not adjusted for inflation: the first “Avatar” ranks #1 at $2.9 billion including new releases, while “Titanic” at $2.2 billion third is. )
Even though the Avatar sequel nearly doubled the first film’s $77 million, The Way of Water still has a long way to go, and the coming weeks and months will tell.
Walt Disney Co. — which already has three more “Avatar” sequels planned through 2028 — is banking on the film not only making it through the holiday season, but also helping generate side revenue from merchandise and its theme parks for years to come.
“James Cameron’s films have long tails,” said Tony Chambers, Disney’s executive vice president of theatrical distribution. “So this isn’t about Day 1. This isn’t about opening weekend. It’s about the entire running time of the film. We know we have a film that both critics and audiences love, we have the screens and there hasn’t been anything in terms of competition for a long time. We are in very good shape and we will know a lot more on January 2 after the holidays.”
While reviews of The Way of Water, which has a 77% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, were slightly mixed, viewers gave the film an A CinemaScore, indicating strong word of mouth in the coming days. With school out and many adults out of work over the holidays, the film is already attracting strong box office numbers for weekday screenings.
With no major tentpole releases in sight until Disney’s own Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania hits theaters in mid-February, Imax Corp. Chief Executive Richard Gelfond is confident that The Way of Water will continue to do well into next year.
“There’s no or very little competition until January and pre-sales are pretty far off,” says Gelfond. “So I think that’s a turtle, not a rabbit.”
If there’s any disappointment at the opening of The Way of Water, it can largely be attributed to insanely high expectations for the release, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore Inc.
“People who saw the early screenings of the film came out of the theater in such a rush, I think that enthusiasm translated into this kind of inflated expectations,” says Dergarabedian. “I see people calling this opening a disappointment, but I think it’s more because everyone is so collectively looking forward to the film. That speaks volumes about what an influential filmmaker James Cameron is and what the Avatar brand means to audiences.”
To make matters worse, the global cinema market is in a very different place today than it was in 2009.
As the domestic box office continues to recover, albeit unevenly, from the COVID-19 pandemic, the all-important Chinese market — which provided more than $261 million in grossing income for the first film — could be negatively impacted if the country is beginning to relax its zero-COVID policy and infections are rising. Meanwhile, Russia, where the first “Avatar” grossed $116 million, won’t be showing the sequel at all — at least not in non-pirated versions.
At a time when moviegoers are finding fewer and fewer reasons to leave their cozy living room couch, the “Avatar” sequel delivered particularly strong results in Imax and Premium formats. Almost 57% of cinema-goers saw The Way of Water in 3-D – a remarkable result for a format that has waned since the exciting days of the first film.
Add to that the fact that The Way of Water runs at 3 hours and 12 minutes which is bubble defying – and potentially box office dampening, and there could be even more reasons to take advantage of the opening Way of Water to see .
With domestic box offices still some 34% cumulatively short of pre-pandemic numbers, exhibitors and even competing studio executives have hope that Cameron’s aquatic extravaganza will prove to be the tide that raises all boats.
“‘Avatar’ is unique among films where the presentation is as important to the viewer as the story,” says Dergarabedian. “The stunning graphics are based on the largest possible and best possible presentation in terms of both sound and image. And that’s great for cinemas. Because you don’t get that at home.”
Times contributor Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-18/did-the-box-office-opening-for-avatar-the-way-of-water-live-up-to-expectations Did the box office opening for Avatar: The Way of Water live up to expectations?