'Avatar' to Get Surprise Rerelease in China (Exclusive)

AVATAR, Zoe Saldana, 2009
20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The plan could have the unexpected effect of restoring James Cameron's 2009 sci-fi epic as the highest-grossing movie ever, pushing 'Avengers: Endgame' back into second place.

Seemingly out of nowhere, James Cameron is back at the multiplex — but only in China.

China's Film Bureau has approved a surprise plan for the director's 2009 sci-fi epic Avatar to get a wide rerelease in the country on Friday, according to two sources at Chinese movie theater companies, which were informed of the arrangements. The technologically trailblazing blockbuster will be made available to exhibitors for a nationwide release in both Imax 3D and ordinary 3D.

The sudden rollout of the movie could have the unexpected effect of restoring Cameron and Avatar's crown as the highest-grossing movie in global box office history (not adjusted for inflation), pushing Marvel's Avengers: Endgame back into second place. Endgame currently tops the record books with $2.797 billion and change, with Avatar trailing at $2.790 billion — meaning the Pandora-set, blue-peopled sci-fi spectacular will need to earn just under $7.4 million to reclaim the crown.

Although odd in its hastiness, the plan to bring back Avatar in China isn't quite as unexpected as it seems. The 20th Century Fox film (now owned by Disney) was among a short list of historically popular blockbuster titles China's Film Bureau requested for rerelease last March, when China's cinemas were attempting a staged reopening as the country began to get a handle on local spread of the novel coronavirus. With both Hollywood and Chinese studios holding back their new releases for the full-scale reopening, China's Film Bureau turned to back catalogs in an effort to gradually reboot cinemas. A flare-up in COVID-19 cases slowed those plans, however, and most of the catalog movies never made it back to screen.

The exhibitors THR spoke with Tuesday said the digital cinema packages (DCPs) for Avatar were completed last year, and it appeared a decision was made to put them to use. Some in the Chinese industry said that the state-backed distributor China Film Group should push for slightly more time to prepare for the rerelease, delaying Avatar's reappearance on Chinese screens again by a week or two. But China's Film Bureau confirmed Wednesday that the film indeed would be opening Friday, sending exhibitors scrambling to rearrange screening schedules.

The Hollywood Reporter's messages to Disney about the plans went unreturned.

Avatar is an especially nostalgic Hollywood title for Chinese millennials. The movie was among the first wave of Hollywood blockbusters to sweep the country as it was entering its high-growth box office boom era of the late aughts — and Avatar became the biggest sensation of them all. The film opened on a bitterly cold Monday in Beijing in January 2009, instantly setting a new record for biggest opening ever in China on a weekday. The Hollywood Reporter's Beijing correspondent at the time wrote of Chinese cinema-goers lined up outside theaters in foot-deep snow, waiting to get a glimpse of Cameron's 3D vision of Pandora. The film was so popular there that Cameron even considered co-producing his Avatar sequels in China.

Avatar topped out at $202.6 million, an astonishing sum for the China market then, when it was still trailing Japan as the third-biggest theatrical film territory (today, it is the world's largest). It took four years and the construction of thousands more cinemas in China for Avatar's record to fall to Stephen Chow's Journey to the West, which brought in $215 million in 2013.

On Wednesday, a video message of Cameron confirming Avatar's return and thanking Chinese fans of the film was posted to social media in China. "I'm so pleased you get to return to the world of Pandora and relive its wonders," he said.

March 10, 1:10 a.m.: Updated with video of James Cameron confirming Avatar's return.