Three weeks out from its long-awaited release, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is expected to have a huge box office debut, with the first round of projections predicting an opening between $150 million and $170 million.
In that range, James Cameron’s sequel would be the third-highest opening weekend of 2022 behind only “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” ($187.4 million) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($181 million). It would also be more than double the $77 million opening that the first “Avatar” earned in December 2009.
That a film with sub-$100 million opening was able to leg out to lifetime grosses of $785 million domestic and $2.9 billion worldwide to become the all-time box office king shows just how much the box office has changed in the 13 years since “Avatar” debuted. Buoyed by strong word-of-mouth from audiences wowed by the stunning CGI and 3D technology used to create the world of Pandora, “Avatar” had some of the strongest legs ever seen on a blockbuster with weekend drops never exceeding 26% until its 10th weekend.
Now, “Avatar: The Way of Water” faces a market where box office performances are almost always front-loaded and where the opening weekend matters more than ever. It is possible that “Way of Water” could leg out into mid-February similar to how “Top Gun: Maverick” kept on running through the summer, though it remains to be seen whether audiences will be as blown away by the sequel’s visuals and whether the 3D technology, which has fallen out of favor with almost every moviegoer and filmmaker except for Cameron, will be considered as essential for viewing the film and help boost grosses.
Regardless, expectations are sky-high for “Avatar 2,” which was one of the major reasons why Disney acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019. With a third “Avatar” set for release in 2024 and plans by Cameron to make two more films after that, the film needs to gross at least $1 billion for Cameron and Disney’s franchise hopes to be feasible, though Cameron said in a recent GQ interview that he believes the break-even point for the film could be as high as $2 billion.
“You have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even,” Cameron says he told Disney and 20th Century executives.
Whether or not that is hyperbole or bad math from Cameron, “Avatar: The Way of Water” got a big boost on Tuesday night when the film was approved for theatrical release in China, something that has become a rarity for Hollywood releases over the past year amidst growing tensions between China and the U.S..
The first “Avatar” made just $202 million during its original 2009 run but added another $57 million during a re-release last year. With China becoming as big of a box office market as the U.S. over the past decade, “Avatar 2” now has a road to becoming one of the biggest box office hits of all time, provided that Pandora and the Na’vi can win over audiences once again.