pandora's box office

Avatar: The Way of Water is not a one-weekend wonder

The US opening weekend box office missed Disney’s expectations, but the movie could still prove a hit

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Expecting a flood of fans for weeks to come.
Expecting a flood of fans for weeks to come.
Photo: Gareth Cattermole (Getty Images)

After a 13-year wait, James Cameron’s second Avatar movie finally hit the screens on Dec. 16.

In its opening weekend, Avatar: The Way of Water amassed $435 million at the global box office, making it the second-biggest opening of 2022, after Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which clocked $442 million in box office earnings.

The sci-fi epic film, which needs to make at least $2 billion to break even, isn’t relying on a flying start à la Marvel’s superhero movies. Typically, director James Cameron’s movies hold on to solid audience turnout for weeks–many of them repeat viewers. Ask him when people should take a bathroom break during the 192 minutes-long movie, and he confidently says: “Any time they want. They can see the scene they missed when they come to see it again.”

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The real success of the Disney-produced film won’t reveal itself on the first weekend—in Cameron’s own words, “Titanic didn’t work that way. Avatar didn’t work that way”—but closer to the third weekend. Coupling the holiday season with rave reviews on social media eclipsing critics’ more lukewarm takes, the future looks promising for the film.

What worked for Avatar: The Way of Water on the opening weekend

  • A positive 94% Rotten Tomatoes audience score and solid word-of-mouth
  • James Cameron. Cameron’s 2009 Avatar is the world’s highest grossing movie. The third movie on the list, Titanic, is also made by Cameron.
  • Smart marketing which stokes curiosity instead of carpet-bombing
  • The holiday season
  • It’s more of an experience than a riveting plot, so spoilers are few and far between.
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What didn’t work for Avatar: The Way of Water on the opening weekend

  • A three-hour plus runtime
  • Audiences are less keen on 3D
  • A half-generation wait without any significant pop culture presence in the middle
  • China’s covid outbreak
  • Bad weather across North America
  • Confusing formats with the film playing not just in IMAX, Dolby, RPX, 4DX, ScreenX, but also 3D and 3D with High Frame Rate (HFR), and 2D and 2D with HFR. Audiences would get better visuals with HFR, but some complain it’s too video-game-like.
  • World Cup final on Dec. 18

Avatar: The Way of Water, by the digits

$134 million: Opening weekend domestic box office collection, tying with “The Batman” as the fifth-biggest opening of the year in the US. Even at this behemoth figure, it missed expectations: Disney had forecast $150 million while analysts had predicted it would rake in $175 million. One, Box Office Pro’s Shawn Robbins, had predicted between $167-$192 million

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52: International markets the film played in

52,000: Screens the movie released in worldwide; 12,000-plus are in the US. There’s thousands of 3D screens, hundreds of IMAX and D-Box/4D motion auditoriums, and 85 ScreenX locations which provide for a panoramic film format where the screen is expanded, dual-sided, and envelopes 270-degrees.

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$300 million: International box office earnings on opening weekend

$57 million: Three-day ticket sales in China. It could’ve bagged over $100 million in the country but the resurgence of covid has been a dampener

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1,700: Imax screens in 2022. There were only 300 Imax screens when the first Avatar movie released in 2009

27%: Share of China’s box office earnings for Avatar: The Way of Water which came from IMAX screens. China was IMAX’s biggest market in 2021

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$48 million: Earning from IMAX theaters around the world.

Avatar: The Way of Water makes a case for Imax movies

With his 2009 Avatar, Cameron already showed his strong command over technical filmmaking made for the big Imax experience. The original Avatar is the world’s highest grossing IMAX movie at over $270 million.

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The second installation set in Pandora—three other movies are in the pipeline—made IMAX history by releasing in thousands of screens. After the last weekend, Avatar: The Way of Water now holds the record for the biggest IMAX opening ever in India, Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, Chile, Czech, Vietnam, New Zealand, Romania, Serbia, and Kazakhstan

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