With caveats for sure, but after five days of release (and seven in some countries), the trajectory for James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) is clearer. Mostly, now we know enough to guess its ranking among 2022 domestic releases.
Unless a bigger-than-expected surge occurs, “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) will take the 2022 domestic crown with $719 million amassed so far. But the Tom Cruise-starrer, which has a worldwide total of $1.489 billion, should be surpassed by “The Way of Water” when all grosses are in. It’s near-certain that the latter will top the $770 million foreign take for “Maverick,” at this point best in that category.
Through Tuesday, “The Way of Water” has done $168.6 million domestic and $555.9 million worldwide. There are small positive signs that its trajectory will improve compared to recent pre-Christmas weekend releases, from “The Force Awakens” (2015) to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021). In particular, its 13 percent improvement Tuesday over Monday is the best indication so far of a better performance ahead.
Opening weekends are usually enough to reasonably guess the ultimate domestic gross. (Foreign is not as simple because of staggered openings and greater differences between countries). “The Way of Water” is a bit different. Questions about how strong word of mouth is remain unsettled, as are whether its length and possibly higher family viewing interest might shift attendance more to December 25 and after, and how much repeat viewing might add to a higher than usual uptick.
Based on usually reliable precedents of top films with Christmas still ahead, Cameron’s sequel would have looked headed toward a domestic $470 million and $1.4 billion worldwide. The improvement since is small, but as veteran observers know, small upticks in key early days are meaningful. Plus, a record low number of new releases will be playing.
But what makes the outlook better are several elements. First, the fan base for this doesn’t have the same intensity of ardor that makes seeing it first a priority. Then, the 192-minute running time (plus pre-show) makes it a bigger-than-usual commitment that is easier during the holiday break. That commitment and the higher prices for priority premium showings might have led to a wait-and-see feeling among some viewers. Also, particularly for foreign viewers, the World Cup finals over the opening weekend served as competition. Still to be determined is repeat viewing.
Projecting the Christmas-New Year’s period starts with past precedents. Grosses won’t equal the first weekend; next weekend, with Christmas Eve on Saturday, could see a 50 percent drop. But the remaining days of the week will rebound, so the full week might drop only a third.
Where does that lead? Industry sources vary in their projections, but the worst-case scenario is a $475 million domestic total. Most estimates are at least $500-$525 million, with a chance of reaching $600 million. For comparison, “No Way Home” ended up at $814 million.
Foreign estimates tend to be less clear since different markets can react differently. China, in particular, where this grossed $66.5 million so far (hurt by ongoing COVID-19 issues) is where the potential for improvement is greatest. Expect it to top $1.5 billion and “Maverick,” with the estimate anywhere from $1.6 billion to $2 billion. (“No Way Home” was just over $1.9 billion).
Within the industry, nobody was found who expects the domestic take to pass “Maverick.” Comparisons with the massive 22 first weekend multiple for “Titanic” and 10 times for “Avatar” loom large among fans who hope for much more.
This time the circumstances are different. Both those films faced far tighter seating issues through their initial weeks than “The Way of Water.” The current film is a sequel, which almost always means its gross initially surpasses the original (adjusted to current ticket prices, “Avatar” did $113 million its first weekend).
The industry remains convinced that it will outpace what the opening weekend suggested. But meantime, as strong as the projection is (second best domestic for the year), it still has the feel of a small letdown.
“Avatar” adjusted to current ticket prices (which are up 20 percent in the last three years alone) grossed around $1.1 billion domestically, to make it #15 of all time. (“Titanic” is #5, about $1.5 million). Both films worldwide, again adjusted, took in over $3 billion. With all the challenges for theaters and a normal drop for a sequel, the estimated take for the film is a victory.
It alone was never going to salvage a very disappointing 2022 for theaters. And what a lower-than-$2 billion worldwide final take would mean for Disney, with its combined production and marketing costs estimated as high as $750 million, is unclear, particularly in terms of further sequels beyond the already advanced state of “Avatar 3.” The need to gross $2 billion to become profitable comes straight from Cameron, but that feels excessive when Disney is commanding premium film rental for this, and even for a 3D film, there are substantial home viewing revenues that will come into play.