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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’: When Savior Films Aren’t Enough to Save the Box Office

James Cameron's film accounted for nearly 90 percent of all gross, but one big picture doesn't change the big picture.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), from left: Neytiri (voice: Zoe Saldana), Jake Sully (voice: Sam Worthington), 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) fell short of (perhaps unrealistic) domestic opening expectations, by perhaps $50 million. For now, let’s defer judgment and focus on the director’s own history and the calendar rather than comparisons to past Marvel and “Star Wars” films.

Disney estimates the domestic weekend will come to $134 million, worldwide $435 million. This is phenomenal by any standards other than the franchises mentioned above. However, with an estimated cost of at least $400 million “The Way of Water” is a film that does not conform to standards.

The total for all films this weekend is an estimated $152 million. Last year, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” opening to $260 million, that figure was $283 million. In 2019, when tickets cost 20 percent less, it was $248 million.

At 61 percent of 2019, our unadjusted four-week rolling average falls to 51 percent. That’s a horrible rate as we move into the all-important Christmas weeks.

Cameron’s film reinforces the idea that savior films aren’t enough. The gross for 2022 domestic now looks like $7.5 billion, perhaps 15 percent lower than the year’s lowball $8.5 billion projection and far off the $11.2 billion of 2019 (which, at today’s ticket prices, would be over $13 billion).

Only three wide studio releases remain — “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Sony), “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal), and “Babylon” (Paramount), with holdovers providing less additional gross ahead than any previous Christmas.

Key factors in assessing “The Way of Water” include more-limited seating for the higher-priced premium formats of choice, a 192-minute running time that might encourage delayed viewing during the holidays, and the performances of “Titanic” and the first “Avatar” that saw Christmas and weekdays provide major grosses. If those points hold true, they point to a potential four-times multiple. Most franchise blockbusters don’t see even a threes-time multiple.

“Titanic” saw a domestic 22 multiple; “Avatar,” 10 times. That won’t happen here since “The Way of Water” was much better positioned to throw off a massive initial gross. The first “Avatar” opened to $113 million adjusted, but things have changed: Theaters now make every effort to boost a film like this while distributors otherwise vacate the date.

Consider this very much a work in progress. The actual Sunday number; the weekdays; the second weekend with Christmas Eve on Saturday and a holiday Monday; the all-important December 27-January 2 period — these will tell much more of the story.

The last time the calendar exactly matched up was 2016, when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opened to an adjusted $200 million, then fell 59 percent in its second weekend. The bet is “The Way of Water” won’t drop as far. It’s possible that it could reach $400 million through January 2, with enough heft to reach $550 million.

Everything else in the top 10 grossed a pathetic $18 million. Two films  — #2 “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney, which has four of the top five films, including Searchlight’s “The Menu”) and “Violent Night” (Universal) — accounted for half of that. Only five films grossed over $1 million. A reissue of “The Polar Express” (Warner Bros. Discovery) made it to #10 with an estimated $260,000.

THE FABELMANS, from left: Julia Butters, Gabriel LaBelle, 2022. ph: Merie Weismiller Wallace / © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Fabelmans”

Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Fabelmans” (Universal) had the smallest drop of 36 percent. Steven Spielberg’s underperforming but awards-contending film added PVOD play Tuesday. That extra marketing might have helped, but its numbers — $750,000 in 955 theaters, with a per-theater average of $785 — remain grim. Best-case scenario is a $15 million total.

That looks great compared to “Empire of Light” (Searchlight), which jumped to 436 theaters in its second weekend and a gross of $235,000, a PTA of $539. To add insult to injury, a reissue of “Elf” (WBD), currently thriving at $3.99 on VOD, did $278,000 in 270 theaters.

It is unprecedented: On a key weekend right before the holidays, not a single platform title opened from any top specialized distributor. “Living” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Women Talking” (United Artists), and “Corsage” (IFC) open Friday, with Sony providing “A Man Called Otto” and SPC “Turn Every Page” on December 30.

The sole specialized title of note this weekend was “The Whale” (A24). The company’s estimate shows a 49 percent drop from last weekend (which had a PTA of $55,300, not the $60,000 claimed initially). That guess includes a claim of only a 15 percent drop for Sunday from Saturday. A standard guess of a 30 percent drop would bring the weekend down 54 percent.

Keep in mind that platform dates can create enhanced grosses that don’t reflect long-term performance. On this weekend in 2019, “Uncut Gems” dropped 55 percent and ended up with $50 million; “Inherent Vice” had a similar fall and only got to $8 million. The real strength of “The Whale” will be determined in its expansion, which starts Wednesday in around 600 theaters.

 

The Top 10

1. Avatar: The Way of Water (Disney) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Metacritic: 69; Est. budget: $350 million+

$134,000,000 in 4,202 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $31,890; Cumulative: $134,000,000

2. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Disney) Week 6; Last weekend #1

$5,400,000 (-52%) in 3,380 (-345) theaters; PTA: $1,598; Cumulative: $418,991,000

3. Violent Night (Universal) Week 3; Last weekend #2

$5,000,000 (-43%) in 3,525 (-198) theaters; PTA: $1,418; Cumulative: $34,962,000

4. Strange World (Disney) Week 4; Last weekend #3

$2,200,000 (-42%) in 2,870 (-690) theaters; PTA: $767; Cumulative: $33,778,000

5. The Menu (Searchlight) Week 5; Last weekend #4

$1,700,000 (-39%) in 1,875 (-835) theaters; PTA: $907; Cumulative: $32,122,000

6. Devotion (Sony) Week 4; Last weekend #5

$825,000 (-59%) in 2,211 (-1,247) theaters; PTA: $373; Cumulative: $18,661,000

7. The Fabelmans (Universal) Week 5; Last weekend #7; also on PVOD

$750,000 (-36%) in 955 (-18) theaters; PTA: $785; Cumulative: $8,666,000

8. Black Adam (WBD) Week 8; Last weekend #6; also on PVOD

$500,000 (-62%) in 1,304 (-839) theaters; PTA: $383; Cumulative: $167,722,000

9. I Heard the Bells (Fathom) Week 3; Last weekend #9

$308,893 (-59%) in 450 (-521) theaters; PTA: $725; Cumulative: $4,993,000

10. Polar Express (WBD) REISSUE

$(est.) 260,000 in 620 theaters; PTA: $419; Cumulative: (adjusted) $338,000,000

 

Specialized titles

The Whale, Brendan Fraser

“The Whale”

A24

Films (limited, expansions of limited, as well as awards-oriented releases) are listed by week in release, starting with those opened this week; after first two weeks, grosses over $5,000

The Whale (A24) Week 2

$169,827 in 6 (no change) theaters; PTA: $28,305; Cumulative: $596,136

Empire of Light (Searchlight) Week 2

$235,000 in 436 (+326) theaters; PTA: $436; Cumulative: $471,821

The Mean One (RLJ) Week 2

$108,000 in 146 (-16) theaters; PTA: $740; Cumulative: $442,350

Spoiler Alert (Focus) Week 3

$208,000 in 771 (-12) theaters; Cumulative: $1,246,000

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Neon) Week 4

$34,295 in 48 (+13) theaters;  Cumulative: $217,921

EO (Sideshow/Janus) Week 5

$59,500 in 33 (+19) theaters; Cumulative: $238,650

Holy Spider (Utopia) Week 8

$7,031 in 14 (-4) theaters; Cumulative: $200,586

The Banshees of Inisherin (Searchlight) Week 10; also on HBO Max and PVOD

$104,000 in 165 (-105) theaters; Cumulative: $8,795,000

TÁR (Focus) Week 11; also on PVOD

$42,000 in 63 (-17) theaters; Cumulative: $5,455,000

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