‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ All Set For Massive Box Office Wave
There’s no doubt that Avatar: The Way of Water will be massive, the question is just how massive. After the pitifully low box office last weekend, where all films grossed just $37.6 million making it the second lowest grossing weekend of the year, the sequel to the world’s highest grossing film of all time comes out after a gap of 13 years. The box office still has many hurdles ahead, but at least for the rest of the year theaters should be packed with audiences eager to return to the world of Pandora.

James Cameron’s latest sci-fi epic, which is the first of numerous planned sequels, fittingly picks up over a decade after the events of the first Avatar, with a returning cast that includes Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sigourney Weaver. Among the new cast members is Kate Winslet who re-teams with Cameron 25 years after Titanic, which held the all-time box office record for 12 years before Cameron dethroned himself with Avatar. Can lightning strike for a third time for the king of the box office? The first Avatar had a $750 million domestic cume and $2.74 billion worldwide cume from its original release (re-releases put it at $785 million domestic, now the fourth-highest gross of all time, and $2.92 billion worldwide, the highest gross of all time), and it would of course be foolhardy to expect a repeat of that business. Still, there’s a good chance we’ll see the all-time top ten lists be shaken up, and the film may be 2022’s highest grosser, at least globally if not domestically (Top Gun: Maverick currently holds those crowns with $719 million domestic and $1.49 billion worldwide).

Back in 2009, Avatar opened to $77 million, hardly an opening that you’d expect to lead to all-time high box office numbers, but the film, which was a breakthrough for 3D cinema, was a true phenomenon, just like Titanic before it. The second weekend was just 1.8% below the first, and the film dropped just 9.4% in the third weekend. It may not have had a record-breaking opening (though it does actually hold the record for the highest opening for a live action film not based on any preexisting IP), but to date it is the topper when it comes to third, fourth, fifth, and sixth weekends (the subsequent weekend records are held by none other than Titanic). The multiplier was an astonishing 9.7.

However, The Way of Water performs, it is certain to follow a different, more front-loaded trajectory. The opening weekend could be the year’s biggest (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ $187 million debut is current champion), and it may even join the club of just eight films so far to open above $200 million. Still, whether it performs like a “normal” big blockbuster or another title for the record books is something we won’t know until the follow-up weekends. There’s no official word on what the budget is, but Cameron claims the film will need to be “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” to break even, which would mean a gross of above $2 billion (keep in mind no film since 2019 has gotten that high). Veracity of that statement aside, the legs will be the real story here, just as with Cameron’s earlier blockbusters. Thankfully, critics are saying the film exhibits no signs of a sophomore slump, with the 81% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes being practically on par with the first film, and many reviews are calling it another must-see big-screen experience.

A high share of 3D and premium large format tickets will bolster the numbers, and worldwide it could easily clear half a billion by Sunday. 15 markets got the film early on Wednesday, and the strong opening day is 70% ahead of Top Gun: Maverick in like-for-likes. Though The Way of Water won’t get a release in Russia (and Avatar did $116 million in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States), the rest of the world gets it this weekend, including China where few Hollywood blockbusters have released this year. The market has been in a funk due to Covid and the film could get off to a sluggish start as a result, but Avatar is a hot commodity in the Middle Kingdom. China was the second-biggest market for the first Avatar, grossing $203 million in its initial release, and Chinese audiences have not forgotten about the film, with the 2021 re-release boasting a gross of $57.7 million.

The windfall from Avatar 2 will undoubtedly be great for theaters, but such gains are temporary and one film can only do so much, as we saw with the huge numbers on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever which were only enough to keep the box office above $100 million for two weekends. Next Wednesday comes the release of Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and we may be in for a repeat of last winter when Spider-Man: No Way Home shattered records, Sing 2 had a solid take home, and nearly every other film was a box office disaster. Babylon and I Wanna Dance with Somebody come next Friday, and hopefully they as well as some of the specialty box office titles can find an audience and the January releases can keep the momentum up, bucking the trend of a yo-yoing box office that has been with us since summer ended.