HEAT VISION

How 'Avatar' Reclaimed Its Global Box-Office Crown

How Avatar Became King Again
Photo Illustration: 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection. avengers: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Marvel Studios/Courtesy Everett Collection
James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster retakes the all-time record from 'Avengers: Endgame' thanks to a big China rerelease debut — an optimistic sign for franchise sequels.

James Cameron only found out a few days beforehand that Avatar would be rereleased March 12 in China in a move that pushed his 2009 science-fiction epic back into the highest-grossing-film-of-all-time slot, not adjusted for inflation.

The China Film Board first reached out to Cameron and Disney in March 2020 about the possibility of rereleasing some older films as a way of encouraging theatergoing in a period when new product from both Hollywood and Chinese studios has been scant. Cameron offered Avatar and Titanic, both of which had been produced by Fox and are now owned by Disney.

“We got on board quickly,” says Avatar and Titanic producer Jon Landau. “We’ve been very vocal in voicing our opinion that we have to support brick-and-mortar theaters during this trying time where theaters are open. But we didn’t find out until last week that this was something people were actually interested in having happen.”

With zero promotion, the film opened with $21.1 million during the Friday-to-Sunday frame, adding an additional $2.8 million on Monday and bringing Avatar’s total worldwide box office to $2.814 billion, ahead of Avengers: Endgame’s $2.797 billion. The entire release was in 3D, much of it Imax 3D, and the film grossed $6.2 million in those large-format theaters over the weekend.

“In a post-2020 era, there remains a huge desire for the general public to see movies on the big screen,” Landau says. The rerelease was a coming home of sorts — in 2009, the then-emerging Chinese box office was key to Avatar’s success in its initial release, with the film one of the first Hollywood movies to host a Beijing premiere.

Since May, Cameron has been in New Zealand, where he has completed the principal live-action production for Avatar 2, 3 and part of 4, Landau says, and he’s now engaged in what the filmmakers are calling “post-live-action work”— a term distinct from postproduction meant to encompass some of the virtual production techniques that the original film pioneered.

The success of the Avatar rerelease was encouraging news not just about moviegoing in general but about the prospects for the next film in the series, due Dec. 6, 2022. Notes Landau: “Sure, it’s nice to reclaim the No. 1 spot, but what the rerelease signifies is that a 12-year-old title with no advance notice could open at No. 1 in the marketplace.”

This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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