“Avatar” returns to theaters in China March 12 in wide release. It could do very well: The world’s biggest-grossing territory is approaching something like box-office normalcy thanks to local productions like “Hi, Mom!”, a comedy that grossed $783 million in less than a month.
However, all “Avatar” needs $7,361,472. That would be enough for James Cameron’s 2009 3D science-fiction epic to earn $2,797,800,565 — a sum that would allow it to reclaim the title of history’s #1 film in worldwide box office.
“Avengers: Endgame” overcame “Avatar” in 2019, when it grossed $2,797,800,564. For the sticklers among us (this writer included), all of these records are academic when “biggest-ever” calculations take no notice of inflation, ticket prices, international rates of exchange, and the uncertainty that overseas calculations are as accurate as they are in North America.
It is possible the two films that sold the most tickets to American audiences are D.W. Griffith’s 1905’s “Birth of a Nation” and 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.” The less said about that, the better. But “Avatar” vs. Endgame”? Why not debate it: It’s been a long pandemic and everyone misses the horse races.
“Avatar” was a $206 million hit when it was released in China in 2010, but since then the country has seen a boom in theaters and overall moviegoing, including dramatic ticket-price increases. “Endgame” grossed more than three times as much with $653 million. That huge gap suggests significant opportunity for “Avatar.”
“Endgame” was released two years ago, so this is no longer a battle between studios: Disney now owns both films after its acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Beyond bragging rights, there’s another good reason for Disney’s “Avatar” reissue: “Avatar 2” is set for release December 16, 2022, 13 years after the original. As a film that sees less home viewing (the critical nature of its 3D format means losing a lot in translation), a theatrical reissue can remind moviegoers that they loved it. Also essential is introducing it to a young audience; by now, few people under 18 have seen or perhaps even heard of it.
It’s possible that an “Avatar” reissue could go wider. The next few months offer easy access to the best IMAX and 70mm theaters and the message of elevating the theatrical experience would be a plus. China’s performance would figure into any further decisions for the film, but any significant wide release would almost guarantee a permanent number above “Endgame.”
In a time when the future of exhibition is uncertain at best, “Avatar” vs. “Endgame” offers a comforting nostalgia when studios didn’t delay box-office figures, or refuse to release them. It’s the reminder of a simpler time when we weren’t entirely sure what “streaming” and “VOD” meant, and we believed that a movie could earn nearly $3 billion.