A decade after “Avatar” cemented its place in box office record books, director James Cameron is returning to the lush world of Pandora with “The Way of Water.” Will moviegoers be eager to reconnect with the Na’vi?
Based on opening weekend projections, it appears that Jake Sully and company have — against all odds — remained in the public consciousness. The film is poised to debut to $150 million to $175 million, a towering start for a tentpole that does not involve superheroes. But as the sequel to the highest-grossing movie in history, “Avatar 2” has some pretty high expectations to clear.
The first “Avatar” debuted in 2009 with $77 million domestically, a solid yet hardly record-breaking start. But the film had unparalleled staying power, holding the No. 1 spot for a record consecutive seven weeks and eventually climbing to $760 million in North America. The sequel will similarly rely on repeat viewings and long legs at the box office, although its daunting runtime (3 hours and 12 minutes) could be intimidating to viewers. Lucky for “The Way of Water” (though maybe unlucky for struggling theater owners), there’s not much competition throughout the rest of the year.
Already, “Avatar 2” has drummed up $38 million in advance ticket sales, pacing ahead of “Top Gun: Maverick” (which opened to $126 million) and “Jurassic World Dominion” (which opened to $145 million), but behind “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (which opened to $181 million) and “Black Panther Wakanda Forever” (which opened to $180 million) at the same point in their sales cycles.
At the higher end of projections, “Avatar 2” looks to land one of the biggest domestic debuts of the year, although it’s not expected to defeat “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” or “Wakanda Forever.” The other top openings of 2022 include “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($144 million) and “The Batman” ($134 million).
Internationally, “Avatar 2” could add at least $250 million to $350 million over the weekend, which would put global ticket sales at $400 million to $500 million. China, where movie theaters have been in crisis mode, will determine whether ticket sales manage to reach the half-billion dollar mark. With those estimates, “Avatar 2” could also land among the biggest global openings of the year, around “Doctor Strange 2” (with $449 million excluding China) and “Jurassic World Dominion” (with $356 million including China.)
It’s lucky, for Disney and Cameron, that “Avatar: The Way of Water” is one of today’s rare Hollywood movies granted access to play in China, where the original became a sensation with $261 million. However, COVID flare-ups in the country, as well as theater closures (only 77% of cinemas are open), have put box office expectations in limbo. But “Avatar” may be the exception to lackluster attendance in the country. So far, Chinese cinemas have tallied $22 million in advanced sales for “Avatar 2,” and it’s realistic that initial returns could reach $100 million by Sunday.
“The Way of Water” will also get a boost from Imax screens, which comes with an increase over the average movie ticket. It will be playing in more than 4,000 Imax locations across the globe, marking the company’s widest release of all time. Premium formats like Imax and 3D were key in driving ticket sales for the original, which boasted revolutionary use of CGI and motion capture technology. The first film is the highest-grossing Imax release ever with $270 million globally, despite only 300 screens in existence at the time.
The sequel to “Avatar” cost a reported $350 million, so it won’t satisfy at the box office by simply putting up impressive numbers. According to Cameron, it needs to be one of the three or four top-grossing movies in history to break even and justify its exorbitant price tag. Moreover, Cameron needs “The Way of Water” to work because it’s the first of three planned follow-ups in Cameron’s sprawling futuristic series. The international box office, where the first “Avatar” made over 70% of its money, will be key to the movie’s financial success.
Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman is optimistic “Avatar 2” will find itself in the upper echelon of all-time box office charts. “I think the odds of that happening are actually quite good,” he wrote in his review. “Cameron has raised not only the stakes of his effects artistry but the choreographic flow of his staging, to the point of making ‘The Way of Water,’ like ‘Avatar,’ into the apotheosis of a must-see movie.” He adds, “Cameron, a four-decade veteran of bravura action logistics, has lost none of his mojo.”
Set more than a decade after the first film, “Avatar: The Way of Water” follows the Sully family — portrayed by Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver — as they battle the elements to stay alive and keep each other safe.
Other critics have been similarly euphoric, with the Los Angeles Times proclaiming the film will “cure your moviegoing blues” and The Atlantic saying “Avatar 2″ puts most modern blockbusters to shame.”