“Avatar: The Way of Water” didn’t make quite the impact that many expected, but James Cameron’s big-budget spectacle did help keep the box office alive this weekend. According to studio estimates, the sequel earned $134 million in North American theatres and $300.5 million internationally for a $434.5 million global debut.
It was tied for the fourth highest domestic debut of the year, trailing “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($187.4 million in May), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($181 million in November), and “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($144.2 million in July).
The pressures of following up the highest grossing film of all time (thanks in part to various re-releases) over a decade later, as well as the daunting task of propping up an exhibition business that’s still far from normal, were enormous for “Avatar 2,” which carried a reported price tag of over $350 million. The Na’vi characters, the runtime (a staggering three hours and 12 minutes), the technological advancements, and the release strategy from 20th Century Studios and The Walt Disney Co. are all oversized.
Many people expected a domestic debut of at least $150 million going into the weekend. Some even said $175 or more, but tracking was not a reliable metric during the pandemic.
When Disney looked at pre-sales, they saw that “The Way of Water” was going to be a different kind of beast. Post-opening weekend sales for a typical, spoiler-heavy film, such as many Marvel offerings, are typically around 5%. They were at 20% for “The Way of Water” at the time. In other words, the company was aware that tracking was exaggerated.
“We’ve got a terrific movie that’s playing across all demographics and (has) terrific word of mouth,” said Tony Chambers, executive vice president of theatrical distribution for the Walt Disney Co. “We have the screens, and we have a clear run. It’s not about opening day or opening weekend. This is about the whole race.”
The film was released internationally on Wednesday and in North America on Thursday evening. “Avatar: The Way of Water” was released in 4,202 theatres on over 12,000 screens in the United States, 400 of which were IMAX 3D. The studio and filmmakers placed a large bet on the popularity and higher prices of the 3D format and premium large screens.
By the end of Friday, “Avatar: The Way of Water” had earned $53 million in the United States and Canada, and $180.1 million globally, thanks to a China release — the country’s first major Hollywood release since “Minions: The Rise of Gru” in August. It far outperforms “Avatar’s” $26.7 million opening day in 2009, which did not include Thursday previews.
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Worldwide 3D ticket sales contributed an estimated 66% of the $435 million opening weekend revenue.
Travis Reid, CEO of 3D firm RealD, established a “new benchmark for today’s 3D market.”
The company’s second biggest weekend brought in more than $48.8 million from IMAX screens alone (1,543 in 80 markets).
“As excited as we are about these early results, we expect ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ to have a long and successful run.” “IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond said in a statement.
As with many ambitious Cameron projects, from “Titanic” to the first “Avatar,” tensions were high for the costly sequel, which began production five years ago and is one of the most expensive of all time. It endured numerous delays and survived The Walt Disney Company’s 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox. It’s also one of four “Avatar” sequels in the works, according to Cameron. The third film, which was shot concurrently with “The Way of Water,” is finished and will be released in December 2024.
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In the 13 years since the first film, “Avatar” has also been the brunt of jokes about how the biggest movie of all time, with nearly $3 billion in box office, has left a relatively minor cultural imprint. Nonetheless, critics have largely praised “The Way of Water,” not only for its visuals but also for improving on the story of the first film. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 78% positive rating from critics.
The question of whether “Avatar 2” will earn enough money is complicated, with many different answers. Is it enough for exhibitors who have had a number of big hits this year, including “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Black Panther 2,” and “Doctor Strange 2,” but are still struggling? Is it sufficient to justify beginning production on the fourth and fifth films? Is it sufficient for the business as a whole, which is expecting a domestic year-end total in the $8 billion range, compared to a pre-pandemic normal of $11 billion?
However, the studio and analysts, like the critics, are singing a similar tune.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” benefits from a holiday season that is relatively devoid of major blockbuster-style films. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” and the family-friendly “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” will be released next week.
The hope is that, like the first film, audiences will seek out “Avatar 2” for weeks and months to come.
“Historically, James Cameron’s films are about the long haul, not the opening weekend,” said Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “The box office for ‘Avatar’ will grow over time. It’s about where it’ll be in a few months.”