‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Could Reach $600 Million Domestic, $2 Billion Worldwide

Midweek grosses remain very strong for James Cameron's sequel, increasing its chances to hit the box office target he hoped for.
Avatar: The Way of Water
"Avatar: The Way of Water"
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) grossed $23.8 million in the U.S./Canada on December 27, with $74.6 million worldwide. The domestic total is off 26 percent from the holiday Monday, in line with normal decline. These numbers are the best sign yet that the super-expensive sequel is in play to reach what James Cameron said was needed to be profitable.

Overall business — with “The Way of Water” making up about two-thirds of the total — also fell that amount, although the rest of the top 10 titles for the day but one fell less. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal) held about the same as Monday, typical for a children’s film this week of the year. It grossed $6.8 million, with $33 million in for its first week.

Industry insiders always look to the first weekday after Christmas to get a clear look at the performance of recently opened films. This year meant December 27 was the back-to-quasi-normal day, though with schools out and many adults on vacation.

These figures help clarify two important estimates: the ultimate take for “The Way of Water” and the total domestic gross for 2022. The former is very encouraging, with the latter only slightly better than the worst fears.

Twelve days into “The Way of Water,” its grosses can be compared to past pre-Christmas blockbuster releases to determine its relative performance and its future trajectory. With a domestic $343 million haul, six days of holiday play left, then open season for January and beyond to dominate the box office, its outlook is brighter than before the weekend.

In past years, the remaining post-Christmas weekdays for similar films generally fell from the high of the initial one. How the second weekend performs is affected by the calendar, with this year’s configuration including an extra day (January 2) as a positive factor.

If “The Way of Water” holds better than “Spider-Man: No Way Home” did last year through the holiday, then performs with similar drops after that, it projects to a domestic $565 million total. That’s significantly above the $500-$550 million industry guess before last weekend.

But its performance in recent days above the norm for similar titles suggests better. With weather a minor factor immediately ahead, so far there has been some limitation in premium screens results, and with overall strong momentum, a $575–$600 million total is now likely.

And with the film so far doing about 70 percent of its gross in non-domestic territories, that means $2 billion worldwide is now possible. Though not guaranteed, that estimate now comes with enough data and precedents to feel reasonable.

The unknown still is if the word of mouth comes close to what propelled “Titanic” and the original “Avatar” to historic holds in 1998 and 2010. Things differ this time — “The Way of Water” had far fewer capacity limits and much less competition from other films in the market. How many people add multiple viewings, which factored into the lengthy runs of both those films, remains to be seen. But the potential exists for it to exceed $600 million/$2 billion.

If these hold, “The Way of Water” will end up No. 2 domestic for the year, behind “Top Gun: Maverick” ($719 million). But anything over $1.5 billion — it currently has $1.03 billion — gets it to No. 1 worldwide. And it has a good shot at surpassing “No Way Home” ($1.9 billion) as the best release since pre-COVID.  (Last Christmas’ Sony/Marvel title did $805 million domestic.)

Though as always, the weekday numbers for other films also showed a holiday boost, they did little to change their weak overall year-end performance. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Sony) actually was beaten out for No. 3 Tuesday by “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney). The just-released Whitney Houston biopic did $1.55 million Tuesday and only $8.3 million in its first five days. That’s better than “Babylon” (Paramount), around $5.7 million.

The 2022 total projects to $7.5 billion for U.S./Canada box office. Though slightly above the $7.3 billion guess in mid-December, it remains a huge disappointment for theaters. The worst-case scenario before “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) opened (exceeding expectations) was around $8 billion. AMC CEO Adam Aron last spring suggested hope for $8.8 billion.

Even that would have been a big drop from 2019, the last pre-COVID year. That total was $11.3 billion, down from $11.9 in 2018. The blunt reality is that, with ticket prices estimated at 20 percent or more above what they were in 2019 and earlier, attendance this year was around 55 percent of 2019, closer to 50 percent of the 2018 number. For all the excitement about how “The Way of Water” is doing, that figure is the more important one.

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