‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Opening Box Office: Why Projections May Be Too Low

James Cameron's sequel has almost everything in its record-breaking favor, although that may not be the same thing as providing theatrical salvation.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), 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

[Editor’s note: Grosses for films from 2019 and earlier are adjusted to approximate 2022 ticket prices, using 2019 ticket prices plus an estimated 20 percent increase to date.]

It all starts for real with previews that begin today at 2pm CT in the U.S./Canada. In 14 countries, they’re already on day two; by the weekend, most other countries — including the critical China — will be screening “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney). It’s the most-anticipated film of 2022 (and, at one time or another, most recent years); more importantly, it’s poised to make everyone forget the theatrical doldrums or die trying.

Projections don’t guarantee the year’s biggest opening, but it should be in range. Its competitors are “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($187.4 million) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($181.3 million). A year ago this weekend,  “Spider-Man: No Way Home” opened to $260.1 million, second only to the 2019 “Avengers: Endgame” ($420 million adjusted).

A pre-Christmas weekend as blockbuster launchpad is not a James Cameron invention, but he is a pioneer in the space. Pre-“Titanic,” the holiday seemed unfriendly to the traditional tentpoles. Too many movies. There might be a blizzard. Much safer, the logic went, to launch in the summer, or maybe Thanksgiving.

It’s true: Christmas is the most challenging time to release a big film. It’s a tiny opening with a finite number of theaters and seats. Until recently at least six studios would release films in that period, along with top holdovers and more limited specialized expansions.

TITANIC, 1997, TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.
“Titanic”©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

Cameron’s two previous December titles —”Titanic” and “Avatar” — made the case for avoiding Christmas for other blockbusters. But in 2015 “The Force Awakens” changed Christmas release plans forever. Disney correctly sensed it had the goods to demand multiple screens through the holiday and it opened to $324 million, second only to the non-Christmas “Avengers: Endgame.”

Here’s how much Christmas has changed: In 1997, “Titanic” opened to $69 million, accounting for 30 percent of the weekend total and narrowly beating out the same-day release “Tomorrow Never Dies.” In 2009 “Avatar” opened to $113 million or 56 percent of the weekend.

“The Way of Water” should easily account for at least 85 percent of this weekend’s total. Last year’s “Spider-Man” represented 91 percent.

Since “Force Awakens,” Christmas played host to other “Star Wars” films, “Aquaman,” and “Spider-Man.” This year, there are only three other new studio wide releases leading up to December 25 — “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal), “Babylon” (Paramount”), and “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (Sony), with “Puss” expected to do best.

Earlier this year, we expected this corridor to be more crowded. “Shazam: Fury of the Gods” (Warner Bros. Discovery) moved to March (and spring vacation) after “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” moved to Christmas 2024.

Therein lies a core issue that affects Christmas and hurts theaters. “Shazam” wanted premium screens, which “The Way of Water” blocked. “Aquaman” grabbed them for next Christmas. That would make yuletime a warm environment for non-franchise/FX titles that used to thrive, like “Sherlock Holmes,” Nancy Meyers’ “What Women Want” and “The Holiday,” or “Meet the Fockers,” but today movies like those barely exist.

Avatar: The Way of Water
“Avatar: The Way of Water”Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

That means, while “The Way of Water” is a serious draw, it also has the clearest possible path for total domination. To some degree, alternatives always cut into a new release’s take. That’s why current opening projections of $170 million-$190 million could easily be low. Add in generally favorable reviews and $200 million + feels right.

Premium screens are both its biggest asset and drawback. IMAX, 3D, and similar presentations cost up to $30 at key big-city locations. Elsewhere, close to $20 is common. In 2009, “Avatar” became the must-see in 3D film; this time, seeing the film in anything other than high-priced presentations seems silly.

That will elevate its grosses, but there’s a wrinkle. It plays on only 400 IMAX 3D screens, of which nearly all locations have only one. With a running time of 192 minutes, that means three shows a day at most. That combination of unusual factors will be central to analyzing initial results, but it also suggests the potential for terrific long-term holds — especially if there’s multiple viewings.

This weekend will also be compared to both of Cameron’s earlier smashes, but the differing circumstances render these largely meaningless — and absurd if the previous box office returns remain unadjusted. Better comps come from more recent films.

Unless “The Way of Water” opens to $220 million or more, this weekend will fall short of 2019, when “Rise of Skywalker” opened and tickets cost 20 percent less. The “Avatar” could be the biggest film ever, even in terms of attendance, but it can’t save theaters alone. Worse: The success of Cameron’s radical experiment could make it even more difficult to take risks on original films.

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