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‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Grosses Lower than Expected $17 Million Thursday: What It Means

For James Cameron, that preview number is not a standout — but like "Titanic" and "Avatar," the rules for his film could be different.

Avatar: The Way of Water

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney), the years-in-the-making sequel with a reported budget before marketing of $350 million-$400 million, grossed $17 million December 15 in U.S./Canada shows at 4,202 theaters. Exactly a year ago, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony) grossed $50 million on its opening day.

The $50 million for “No Way Home” translated into a $260 million pre-Christmas domestic weekend, a little over five times the preview haul. The equivalent for “The Way of Water” would be under $100 million for the weekend — but there’s reason to believe the weekend total will be significantly higher.

Industry projections from exhibitors and rival distributors anticipated an opening weekend somewhere around $175 million, with a chance for more. That now appears unlikely. Some sources indicated closer to Thursday that under $150 million was more likely. That would be below “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” both $180 million+ debuts, but ahead of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the year’s biggest hit.

“Spider-Man” and “The Way of Water” both benefited from IMAX, 3D, and other premium-format locations. In 2009, “Avatar” in 3D was a major event and enhanced presentations represented 61 percent of the sequel’s take (per Disney). However, 3D has drawn far fewer patrons for top films in recent years and it’s unclear whether the public has the same hunger 13 years later. That question is critical for theaters and for a film that, that more than any other release, is best seen in theaters.

Two-day totals for 44 already-open foreign dates, excluding China, reached $50.4 million. Though most are not year’s best for initial days at most, they are strong particularly for this time of the year.

Avatar

“Avatar”

20th Century Fox

Although Cameron’s sequel is highly anticipated, it’s not necessarily parallel to the rabid Marvel and Star Wars franchise fans who flock to the earliest-possible showings. “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009) both opened on this weekend, in different eras of preview shows. “Avatar” grossed the equivalent of $5 million (adjusted) in midnight shows only.

Neither film had an opening that conveyed their ultimate success, but this was due in part to the more-limited theater capacities of the period. “Titanic” ultimately grossed 22 times its opening weekend; “Avatar,” 10 times. That record makes any definitive response to the preview numbers more difficult.

Though it’s hard to ignore the “No Way Home” preview total, it should be noted that the 192-minute “The Way of Water” running time could  lessened its weeknight appeal. Holidays are ahead with ample time for leisure activity and audiences may have decided to wait. With top-presentation theaters more limited, showtimes are less convenient and in some cases sold out. Also, “The Way of Water” is touted as an experience to savor rather than an ongoing series with built-in incentive to avoid spoilers.

With the lucrative holiday ahead and Cameron’s precedent for long-running films that maintain strength for three months in theaters, it would be premature to presume it won’t perform at the enormous level needed to cover its expense. Its ultimate total could easily end up with 70 percent or more, like his prior films, coming from non-domestic grosses.

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