‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Surges To $881 Million Worldwide Cume, Newcomers Open Soft As Storm Takes Toll on Christmas Weekend Box Office
This Christmas weekend box office looked a lot like last year’s, with a megablockbuster (Spider-Man: No Way Home then, Avatar: The Way of Water now), leading the way, a modest grossing toon in second place (Sing 2 then, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish now), and a slew of other contenders that largely failed to find an audience. The weekend was depressed by having the historically low-grossing Christmas Eve fall on Saturday rather than a weekday (last year the holiday weekend was likewise down as the 24th fell on Friday) and by Storm Elliott which has afflicted a large chunk of the country. The numbers could improve with the actuals, but for now the total box office for the weekend is estimated at just $82.8 million, which is down from last year’s $144 million. The weeks ahead still have strong potential, particularly for the season’s big ticket title Avatar 2, but there’s no denying that the overall slate is not connecting with audiences once again this season.

James Cameron’s epic sci-fi sequel brought in $56 million this weekend (a drop of 58%) and including Monday estimates it grossed $82 million for the four-day, bringing the cume to $280 million after 11 days. That’s the fourth best 11 day cume of the year, behind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s $294 million, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ $297 million, and Top Gun: Maverick’s $308 million. TWOW may pull ahead of those two MCU films in the coming week, though catching up to Maverick is more of a long shot. By its 11th day, the first Avatar 2 was at just $237 million, but that film just kept playing and playing for months to come as it went on to become the highest grossing film of all time, finishing its initial run with $750 million. Avatar 2 may not have the same juice, but we’re still looking at what may be a top three film since the start of the pandemic.

2016 was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which also opened a week before the Christmas weekend, was the number one film. Rogue One and The Way of Water saw similar numbers following the opening day (the more frontloaded Star Wars film boasted a considerably larger first Friday), though Rogue One pulled ahead once again in its second weekend grosses, unencumbered by disastrous weather. It had a cume of $318 million by its 11th day and it finished with $532 million, becoming the seventh highest grossing film of all time (now it is 15th). It wouldn’t be a surprise if Avatar: TWOW were to catch up in the weeks ahead, but that’s far from a guarantee and would require much stronger than average holds from the film. Of course, for a James Cameron film, anything less would be a disappointment.

Internationally the film fell 42%, and in many markets the drops were negligible. In both South Korea and France, the second and third biggest international markets respectively, it dropped just 7% bringing the cumes in both countries over $50 million. China remains the biggest market, though unfortunately it dropped a steep 55% owing to the country’s Covid outbreak (take away China and the international drop was just 38%). Still, at $100 million after two weekends, it certainly beats not releasing in China, a fate that has bestowed most Hollywood blockbusters of late. Worldwide the cume is now $881 million, with $1 billion right around the corner, and it will soon be the year’s second highest global grosser after Top Gun: Maverick ($1.489 billion). The holds over the next few weeks should give us a sense of if it can become number one for the year and possibly even approach the $2 billion mark which Cameron claims is the break-even.

The second place film over the Christmas weekend is Universal’s animated Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which opened Wednesday and grossed $11.4 million for the three-day and $18.6 million for the four-day, bringing the cume to $24.7 million through Monday. The best comp is last year’s Sing 2, which also opened in the shadow of a huge franchise film the Wednesday ahead of the Christmas weekend, but unfortunately the gross of Puss in Boots 2 isn’t holding up. Sing 2 was at $47 million at the end of its sixth release day, almost double The Last Wish’s cume. The Last Wish also can’t match up to the first Puss in Boots, which opened to $34.1 million back in 2011. The opening on the toon’s sequel is comparable to Disney’s recent Strange World, which was a box office disaster as it opened to $18.9 million over the long Thanksgiving five-day weekend and has since tallied just $35.9 million.

The good news for the Puss in Boots franchise is that the budget on the sequel is more modest ($90 million) than the costly Strange World, and the legs should be better given the Shrek-spinoff’s strong word of mouth, having received a great A CinemaScore compared to Strange World’s B. There are no major animated films in the first quarter of 2023, so like Sing 2, which legged out to $163 million, Puss in Boots 2 should play long, and with the holidays it could catch up to the solid box office of this year’s earlier animated titles The Bad Guys and DC League of Super-Pets (both films opened at $23-24 million and finished in the mid-$90 millions). Worldwide the total is $57.2 million.

Sony’s Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which opened Friday, came in third place with a cume of $5.3 million for the three-day and $7.5 million for the four-day. That’s a poor start for the $45 million budgeted biopic, but the strong audience response (A CinemaScore) could give it some solid holiday legs. Worldwide the total is $10.1 million.

Coming in fourth place is Paramount’s Damien Chazelle directed period epic Babylon, which stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie and looks at the period of Hollywood’s history when it was transitioning between silent and sound filmmaking. Unfortunately, hopes that this $80 million budgeted film wouldn’t be another Amsterdam (another expensive period piece with an $80 million budget and a star studded cast that includes Margot Robbie) turned out to be in vain. Babylon, which came out Friday, opened to just $3.5 million for the three-day and $5.4 million for the four-day. That’s even worse than Amsterdam’s $6.4 million opening, and the audience response is worse as well, with a C+ CinemaScore compared to Amsterdam’s B. Even adjusting for Christmas Eve and the poor weather, and even if this legs out better than Amsterdam (which finished with just $14.9 million domestic and $31.2 million worldwide), this still looks like one of the year’s biggest flops. The film opens internationally next month, though it’s hard to imagine other markets making up for the poor domestic showing.

Rounding out the top five is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever which continues to add to its already large cume. The $3 million three-day and $4.7 million four-day puts it at $427 million through Monday, and the worldwide total is $801 million.

The notable specialty box office release is The Whale, which expanded from six to 603 theaters and grossed $921k over the three-day and $1.3 million over the four-day, bringing the cume to $2.9 million. These aren’t huge numbers for the much buzzed about Darren Aronofsky directed film, which stars Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese man trying to connect with his estranged teenage daughter, after it scored best of the year theater averages in its opening weekend. However, we’ll see if it can leg out better from here than the season’s other Oscar hopefuls.