Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water is already one of the highest-grossing movies of all time
However, it still has a long way to go to break even for James Cameron
Future Avatar sequels could be scrapped if the franchise doesn’t continue to make money
How long will it be before Avatar: The Way of Water makes a profit?
13 years after James Cameron first took us to the dense jungles of Pandora, Avatar: The Way of Water is now in cinemas. The long-awaited sequel is the second chapter in a proposed five-movie arc, but that’s only if Cameron can keep winning at the box office.
In 2023, Avatar: The Way of Water has a deep ocean to navigate if it’s going to claw back its production costs and get anywhere near its predecessor.
But, what’s going on with Avatar 2 and can it turn a profit for 20th Century Studios — a subsidiary of Disney — or is the franchise dead in the water?
How much does Avatar 2 need to make to break even?
Although the original Avatar was once the highest-grossing movie of all time, it was later dethroned by 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. While it looked like nothing would be able to top the Avengers assembling after Thanos’ snap, Avatar’s re-release in 2021 saw it reclaim the top spot.
With technology having come such a long way since 2009, Cameron hoped to recapture the magic of the original by pushing The Way of Water beyond what we’ve seen before. Alongside the use of high frame rate (HFR) technology running at 48 frames per second instead of the industry standard of 24, and game-changing underwater filming, there was also a huge marketing budget. If that wasn’t enough, adding Hollywood megastars like Kate Winslet to the cast means Avatar has to make a small fortune to break even.
Originally, Cameron said The Way of Water needed to make $2 billion (£1.669 billion) to turn a profit. Culture Crave reports that Cameron later said, “I was a little inaccurate with that,” and has since dialled his estimations back to $1.5 billion (£1.252 billion).
Cameron took plenty of heat for this, with his critics saying he gave unrealistic predictions to make die-hard fans flock to cinemas.
Watch: James Cameron tells Yahoo his kids were not Avatar fans
The general rule of thumb is that a film needs to earn at least double the original budget before it is in the black. Early reports suggested Way of Water had a budget of $250m, so a goal of $1.5 billion suggests that original budget was way more than we thought, or that they spent way more than usual to promote it. The latter seems more likely.
The reevaluated numbers are a sizeable drop, which takes The Way of Water from needing to be the third or fourth highest-grossing movie of all time to around the tenth. According to Box Office Mojo’s updated rankings (as of 5 January), 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick is currently in 11th place with $1.49 billion, while Furious 7 has $1.52 billion.
At the time of writing, Avatar 2 is in 12th place with $1.482 billion and falls just behind Avengers: Age of Ultron’s $1.402 billion. It continues to climb, with Forbes predicting it’ll be in 7th or 8th place (around Jurassic World and The Lion King) before Sunday, 8 January.
It comes after a worrying $435 million holiday debut weekend, which widely missed Avatar 2's projected $500 - $600 million. A surge of coronavirus cases in China are thought to be a contributing factor, but still, The Way of Water had the second-biggest opening of 2022 and just fell short of Top Gun: Maverick.
Importantly, it earned $152.8 million in China, the biggest market outside the United States.
What’s next for Avatar?
Taking all of this into account, Avatar: The Way of Water is on track to reach that seemingly impossible $2 billion before it leaves our screens. All of this is down to more than just a whopping marketing budget that’s reported to be between $350-400 million.
Cameron implored us to go and watch the first Avatar in cinemas, telling The New York Times that those who hadn’t seen the 2009 movie on the big screen 'really haven’t seen it'. This mantra fed through into The Way of Water, with the box office recovering from those worrying post-COVID releases like Black Widow.
The holiday box office was less kind to Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, which slumped out with a measly $11 million domestic against a $78 million budget. Then again, it didn’t have the same marketing might of Avatar 2, while naysayers maintain they hadn’t even heard of it.
Read more: Avatar 2 reviews range from 1 to 5 stars
We know Avatar 3 is definitely on the way after being shot back-to-back with The Way of Water, and with the latter’s roaring box office, Avatar 4 and 5 are looking more likely by the day. Good news because Cameron has already shot huge chunks of Avatar 4 and confirmed he’s fully written the script for the fifth.
The question is, will each Avatar need to make an increasingly large amount of money?
Is bigger always better?
Cameron isn’t afraid to flex the bank balance with the Avatar movies. The lengthy wait between the OG and The Way of Water likely contributed to higher costs — along with the fact he completely threw out his first screenplay for Avatar 2. However, the wait also drummed up interest as fans tuned in to see whether he could match 2009’s outing.
According to movie journalist Jeff Sneider (via The Hot Mic podcast), the director wants to submit a nine-hour and full VFX cut of Avatar 3 to Disney before trimming it down. All of this costs money, but with The Way of Water continuing to make a small fortune and maintaining a positive 92% audience and 77% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, the franchise is holding strong for now.
Read more: Hollywood star regrets turning down Avatar
Avatar 3 is apparently called The Seed Bearer and is scheduled for a Christmas 2024 release, and will introduce dark 'fire Na'vi' according to Cameron, followed by Avatar 4 in 2026.
Producer Jon Landau told io9 there are grand plans to visit Earth in Avatar 5, so we can already see the budget spiralling. Then again, it's just as possible that Cameron could shut the whole thing down again.
The man in charge previously told Total Film he’ll keeping making Avatar movies as long as they're profitable, but warned he could easily say, “OK, let's complete the story within movie three, and not go on endlessly.”
Much like how it was wait and see with The Way of Water, all eyes will be on Avatar 3's box office return to see whether we get a trilogy or a quintology. When/if Avatar 5 hits screens in 2028, are we looking at mythical charts where the Top 5 highest-grossing movies of all time are all Avatar?
We’re not sure yet... but either way the old saying remains true: never bet against James Cameron.
Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas now. Watch a trailer below.