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James Cameron is known for defying the odds. Over the past 25 years, he has proven his naysayers wrong twice when Avatar, and a decade earlier, Titanic, became the top-grossing films of all time at the worldwide box office.
Now comes along the long-awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, which opened notably behind tracking projections over the Dec. 16-18 frame, collecting an estimated $134 million in domestic ticket sales. Heading into the weekend, various services and major exhibitors predicted the big-budget sequel would open in the $150 million-$175 million range domestically and serve as a rescue operation after a brutal fall for moviegoing.
Overseas, the movie debuted to $307.6 million for a global start of $435 million, one of the best showings of the pandemic era. One downer: the movie opened to a muted $57.1 million in China, where a new COVID-19 crisis is unfolding.
The big question now: Will the pricey 20th Century/Disney tentpole ride the waves and become the hero of the Christmas box office, or drift into dangerous waters financially? Cameron himself has said The Way of Water will need to earn in the $2 billion range to be considered a success, although the break-even number is closer to $1 billion, according to a film financier.
“Can James Cameron pull the rabbit out of the hat for the third time? I wouldn’t bet against him,” says the source.
The refrain was the same across Hollywood on Sunday as the opening numbers came in. Ditto for Wall Street box office analysts. “Avatar: The Way of Water is an event movie. It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” says an optimistic Eric Handler of MKM Partners, noting that every day between Christmas and New Year’s is like a Saturday. And, on top of an A CinemaScore, the film earned glowing exit scores on PostTrak.
Adds a rival studio distribution executive, “A $441.6 million global debut is pretty good.”
The issue — The Way of Water is one of the most expensive movies ever made, with an estimated production budget of more than $400 million and a marketing spend that brings the total price tag to at least $600 million, according to sources. It also runs three hours and 12 minutes, whereas the first Avatar ran 30 minutes shorter (and cost less).
In December 2009, Avatar opened to a relatively modest $77 million on its way to grossing $2.92 billion globally (that includes rereleases). It also marked a high for the advent of modern-day 3D.
The Way of Water has seen 3D viewing resurgent after it fell out of favor in the years since 2009. Roughly 57 percent of ticket buyers in North America paid an upcharge to see it in Cameron’s preferred format, and 66 percent of international audiences did so. The film has been a boon for premium cinema overall, whether Imax or the myriad other large-format brands offered by the major circuits. But while the majority of ticket buyers in the U.S. opted to pay more money for an upgraded experience, there is only so much capacity. Whether this proves exclusionary for more budget-conscious moviegoers remains to be seen.
Says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore: “Of course there is the option to see the film in 2D, but that’s sort of like drinking an expensive wine out of a paper cup. So to fully enjoy Cameron’s vision, it’s best advised to see it in one of a myriad of premium formats, and this presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the film’s revenue-generating power.”
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