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Sorry, ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ but ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Is Set to Be the #1 Domestic Title of 2022

If James Cameron's film continues its weekly holds, it should surpass "Top Gun: Maverick" as the top domestic hit of 2022.

Avatar: The Way of Water

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) already overtook “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony) as the top-grossing worldwide film in the Covid era; now it’s headed for another milestone. James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel should become the top-grossing 2022 film for U.S./Canada.

Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) is the film to beat with $719 million. It could add to that total with awards-parallel engagements, but no major re-release is scheduled.

Through Tuesday, “The Way of Water” has reached $574.4 million in the U.S./Canada. To reach “Maverick,” it needs to add another $145 million and there’s enough evidence to indicate it will do so.

In its first three weeks, “The Way of Water” didn’t have much competition. That changed in January with “M3GAN,” but James Cameron’s steamroller barely registered the impact. More than a month after its release, it generated just under $40 million across the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Nuances such as competition, access to premium screens, and awards attention can affect gross patterns, but this title has a good precedent in “No Way Home,” which grossed $805 million (and represents a domestic record that “The Way of Water” is unlikely to beat).

In December 2021, “No Way Home” opened on nearly exactly the same calendar as “The Way of Water,” including holiday placement. It had a much bigger first week (Sony’s Marvel entry grossed $188 million more), but “The Way of Water” saw smaller weekly drops in its first three weeks. Drops in week four were about the same.

With this pronounced pattern of holds, and precedents in the first “Avatar” and “Titanic” (both of which had even stronger holds), we’re projecting Cameron’s film to end somewhere around $750 million domestic.

“Top Gun: Maverick”

That would place it ahead of “Maverick” in gross — but if the films’ final totals were the same, the “Top Gun” sequel might be equal or ahead in tickets sold. Worldwide “The Way of Water” grossed $215 million on IMAX screens, compared to $110 million for “Maverick.” Since Cameron’s movie also made greater use of premium-formatted screens, a higher percentage of its gross comes from these more-expensive tickets.

“The Way of Water” will start losing some of those screens February 10 when Paramount rolls out the 25th anniversary reissue of “Titanic,” and most of the remaining premium screens a week later when Disney debuts “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

As for an eventual worldwide total for “The Way of Water,” if $750 million is its domestic haul and that continues to represent around 29 percent of the global total, Cameron’s looking at $2.6 billion. That would place it behind three films, adjusted for inflation (much trickier when doing foreign) that grossed over $3 billion: “Titanic,” “Avatar,” and “The Avengers: Endgame.” Multiple earlier releases (“Gone with the Wind,” “Star Wars,” and “The Sound of Music” among them) also reached that level.

At $750 million domestic, “The Way of Water” would stand as the #5 film of all time in unadjusted totals. Adjusted to 2019 ticket prices, it would be #25; at current ticket prices, it’s somewhere closer to #50. However, its greatest bragging right may be covering its massive production and marketing costs and then some. (Cameron’s guess for minimum needed was $2 billion worldwide.)

Another point of pride: It’s one of three films to open in a 12-month period to $1.5 billion or more worldwide. That’s a sign of recovery for theaters. “The Way of Water” is not is a panacea — but we’d be a lot worse off without it.

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