Disney’s "Avatar 2" return to China could be stalled by covid-19 lockdowns

James Cameron is betting on repeat success at the box office, but China's lockdowns may stand in the way
An epidemic control worker stands on an empty street in Beijing, China. 
An epidemic control worker stands on an empty street in Beijing, China. 
Photo: Kevin Frayer (Getty Images)
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Avatar: The Way of Water (Avatar 2) will reportedly be released in China on Dec. 16 calming concerns the film will not face bans that have blocked the release of other Disney films in the country since 2021. The release of Avatar 2 in China, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, would reverse a trend that has lowered box-office recipes of some of Disney’s biggest releases.

The long-awaited sequel follows James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster film Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time which earned $2.9 billion worldwide. Disney hopes to duplicate that success with Cameron’s follow-up film, a goal that has been threatened by the recent spate of film bans in the world’s second-largest theatrical market. 

Seven films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mostly from Disney, were banned in China including Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony) in 2021. This year, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther were also banned. The last major superhero movie from the MCU to be released in China was Sony’s Marvel collaboration on Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019.

In each case, the Chinese government cited issues with cultural or political messages it perceived to be part of the film’s presentation, a hurdle that also prevented Lightyear from being shown in China due to its depiction of a kiss between a same-sex couple.

There’s no end in sight for China’s strict lockdown policies

Although Avatar 2 will have a box office advantage some of Disney’s other tentpole releases lack, its release in China is no guarantee of success. The country continues to employ strict covid-19 containment measures, even as it signaled a plan to relax the severity of its zero-covid policy in the first week of November. That news lifted hopes in the region that the economy might soon return to normal. But just a little over a week later, the country experienced a new surge of roughly 28,000 new covid-19 infections.

Chinese citizens line up for a covid-19 test in Beijing.
Chinese citizens line up for a covid-19 test in Beijing.
Photo: Kevin Frayer (Getty Images)

The rise in cases has prompted the Chinese government to lock down parks, schools, restaurants, and public venues in the capital city of Beijing. During the height of the pandemic in July 2020, China moved to reopen its locked-down movie theaters. But that was just the first in a series of openings and closings that have fluctuated with the country’s ongoing covid-19 struggles.

China’s box office revenue takes a hit

The pandemic’s impact on China’s box office has been brutal. In 2019, the country’s overall box office haul was nearly $9 billion. In 2020, that figure plummeted to $1.7 billion. In 2021, as vaccines were rolled out internationally, China’s box office managed to pull in $6 billion, still not a full recovery, but seemingly on the path back to its past stature as a box office powerhouse.

In 2022, however, China’s box office revenue has only reached the $831 million mark. The new surge in covid-19 cases means China’s movie theater revenue this year may barely reach 2013 levels, when the country’s movie theaters generated just $3.1 billion.

Likewise, as Avatar 2 prepares to enter the China market in just three weeks on Dec. 16, the high expectations for the film to match or surpass the performance of the previous film will largely depend on how well it does in the region. If China’s lockdowns persist, Cameron will have a difficult time coming close to achieving anything close to the franchise’s past success.