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The release of James Cameron’s Avatar was a defining moment for the Chinese film industry, effectively kick-starting the box-office boom era that continues in the country to this day.
The day before Avatar opened in China, on Jan. 4, 2010, the biggest blizzard to hit Beijing since 1951 dumped a foot of snow on the Chinese capital. With schools and offices closed, filmgoers trundled through the snow and near-zero temperatures to sold-out showings of Cameron’s lush 3D spectacle. Avatar set a single-day box-office record of $5 million on the Monday it opened, and soon captivated the nation to earn an unprecedented $204 million.
Given how much China’s film market has grown in the ensuing six years, it’s worth re-examining just how huge a number $204 million was for China at that time. Avatar‘s performance made up just shy of 13.9 percent of the country’s $1.47 billion full-year box-office total in 2010.
According to conservative projections, China’s box office will hit $9.5 billion in 2016. If Avatar were to take the same share of yearly box office today as it did in 2010 (a highly unlikely outcome given how much more competitive the Chinese market has become, but still fun to entertain), it would gross $1.33 billion in China alone. For comparison, that’s about half a billion dollars more than the biggest movie ever in North America, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
For a generation of Chinese filmgoers, Avatar was the event picture bar none. So, when James Cameron announced at CinemaCon last week that he was making four Avatar sequels, with release dates staggered from Christmas 2018 to 2023, the news inevitably made a splash in the Middle Kingdom.
“This is fantastic news,” said Jimmy Wu, chairman and CEO of Lumiere Pavilions, a prestige movie theater chain with cinemas spread across 30 Chinese cities. “We love what Avatar brought to us — quality 3D helped us establish [our business].”
Many Chinese commentators on social media platform Weibo expressed excitement mixed with a little impatience.
“When I think about Avatar, everything becomes good and all my worries are gone,” posted Huang Jiaxin, adding: “I still remember how amazing the effects of the first one were. I look forward to parts two, three, four and five.”
“Oh my god, when the fourth one comes out, I will be 32,” wrote user Zicongyujianni sj, noting that she was just graduating high school when she saw the first Avatar film. “I might watch it with my future son,” she added.
Speaking at the Beijing International Film Festival Monday, Jeffrey Godsick, president of consumer products at Avatar producer 20th Century Fox, said: “The real value of a franchise is the relationship you can maintain with an audience between pictures.”
Fox is now ramping up efforts — with a particular emphasis on China — to rekindle that bond and abate some of the audience’s restlessness over the nine-year wait for the first sequel.
In addition to a deal to bring an Avatar-land to Disney World in Florida in 2017, Fox has produced the Avatar-themed Cirque du Soleil show “Toruk – The First Flight,” which will tour China next year.
“We’re also producing a traveling exhibition based on the planet of Pandora, where Avatar is set,” Godsick said. “This exhibition will launch in Taiwan later this year, and then we will take it to China, where we will travel around for 12 months.”
“Chinese directors don’t plan movies far in advance, so it’s a little strange for us to imagine waiting for a movie in 2023,” Beijing Film Festival attendee Lulu Xiao told THR in the Chinese capital Tuesday.
“I’m not sure if I will live until 2023,” joked Weibo user Cheng Siju. “How old is James Cameron?” asked another user. “I wish him longevity for Avatar.”
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Representation in Hollywood