‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ To Rule As Newcomers ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’, ‘Babylon’, & ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ Open In Time For Christmas Weekend
The holiday season is in full swing, with Christmas falling this Sunday and a few new releases in store for the busy end-of-the-year movie-going rush. This weekend will likely be a notch smaller than last year’s $144 million Christmas-weekend haul, and like last year the three-day numbers will be depressed by having the soft movie-going day of Christmas Eve fall over the weekend. Still, Avatar: The Way of Water should lead a relatively strong finish to the year (remember the overall box office was a brutally low $57.6 million just two weekends ago).

While the newcomers Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Babylon, and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody all have potential, as does the expansion of The Whale, Avatar: The Way of Water remains the major box office story of this weekend and many weekends to come. James Cameron’s expensive sci-fi epic certainly needs strong holds after its $134 million opening to recoup what is said to be a Pandora-sized budget (Variety is pegging it at $350 million, and Cameron claims the break-even point is upwards of $2 billion worldwide), and only time will tell if it gets there. Through Tuesday it is at $169 million domestic and $556 million worldwide, and a good comp for the weekend is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which led the box office the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday in 2016. That film similarly opened the pre-Christmas weekend, and it launched to a tune of $155 million before a 59% decline brought it to $64 million for its second weekend and $96.1 million for the Friday through Monday (December 23-26) four-day cume. Such a gross would put Avatar: TWOW at a 52% decline in its second weekend and a cume approaching $300 million by Monday.

Given the weekend placement of Christmas Eve this year, the sophomore weekend of Avatar 2 will almost surely fall below that of the first Avatar, which followed up its $77 million opening (which was December 18-20, 2009) with an astonishing $75.6 million second weekend. The sequel should run close to its predecessor on a day-by-day basis though, at least for now, and the weekdays thus far are similar (Avatar did $16.4 million on its first Monday and $16.1 million on its first Tuesday, while The Way of Water respectively did $16.3 million and $18.3 million). Of course, TWOW opened much larger so these are steeper drops from the weekend, but they’re still great numbers by normal movie standards. The film’s first Monday is the year’s second best after Top Gun: Maverick ($33.8 million, and note that was Memorial Day), and the Tuesday gross is the year’s best. These weekday numbers are running closely alongside Rogue One’s $17.6 million gross from both its first Monday and Tuesday.

Avatar 2’s real box office story will be revealed some weeks down the line. Avatar finished its third weekend (which was January 1-3) with $352 million, and then it doubled that and still kept going for nearly $50 million more. Compare this to last year’s stratospheric box office of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which webbed in $614 million in its first three weekends and then “only” grossed $191 million more. The Way of Water has a good chance of finishing the year ahead of where the first Avatar was, but the question is how well it can hold compared to the first film as the weeks and months roll on. Few would expect it to perform as well as the first film, which was the highest grossing of all time domestically (it is now fourth) and is still the highest worldwide (when counting re-releases), and even under performing the first by 25% would make it the 13th biggest domestic grosser of all time and fourth highest grosser worldwide. Internationally it faces some hurdles vis a vis the first film, notably that the China market is taking a beating from Covid and that the film won’t release in Russia (combined those two markets contributed nearly $320 million to the original Avatar), but the overseas numbers are still a major driver here and it could cross $1 billion worldwide by the end of the year if not shortly after, becoming just the fourth film since the start of the pandemic to do so.

The most notable of the newcomers is another long-in-the-waiting sequel. DreamWorks Animations’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish comes 11 years after Shrek-spinoff Puss in Boots and hits 4,000+ theaters. Now the sequel, which opened Wednesday and brings back Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek to voice Puss in Boots and Kitty Softpaws respectively, plays this season’s Sing 2. That animated sequel opened on the Wednesday before Christmas last year, five days after the release of No Way Home, and it was a reliable wing-man as Spidey tore up box office records. The box office on Sing 2 ($163 million domestic and $408 million worldwide) and Puss in Boots ($149 million domestic and $555 million worldwide) suggest where The Last Wish could end up, though those are optimistic comps. Puss in Boots opened to $34.1 million back in October 2011, while Sing 2 opened to a $22.3 million three-day (held back by Christmas Eve falling on Friday) and $39.6 million Wed-Sun opening a year ago. The cume from the 25 international markets where The Last Wish opened earlier this month is an unremarkable $18.8 million so far, but the good news is that the $80 million budget is much smaller than the first film’s $130 million. More good news is that audiences love the film, giving it an A CinemaScore ahead of the first film’s A-, and critics have also given it the stamp of approval with its 96% Tomatometer, ahead of the first film’s 86%.

Another $80 million budgeted film, but a much tougher sell with general audiences, is the 3+ hour period drama Babylon. Damien Chazelle directs and Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie star in this tale of Hollywood as it transitions from the silent to sound eras. It’s hard not to think of the recent star-studded period film Amsterdam, which also co-starred Margot Robbie and also cost $80 million, but that ended up as one of the year’s biggest flops after it opened it October, grossing a scant $14.9 million domestic and $31.2 million worldwide. Paramount’s Babylon, which bows in 3,342 theaters, fortunately looks to avert such a disastrous result, but unfortunately it looks more like Chazelle’s own First Man which grossed $44.9 million domestically and $106 million worldwide than it does the filmmaker’s previous Hollywood sagaLa La Land which was a smash with $151 million domestic and $471 million worldwide. Reviews are mixed (60% on Rotten Tomatoes), which can hurt considering it’s a prestige film with a lengthy runtime.

The other wide release hitting screens Friday is Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody from Sony/TriStar. The film looks like it will have a tough time grossing an adequate amount relative to its $45 million price tag, with last year’s Aretha Franklin biopic Respect (which tallied just $24.3 million domestic and $32.9 million worldwide) being a better comp than the hit musical biopics of recent years such as Elvis, Rocketman, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

In the specialty box office, The Whale’s roughly 600 theater expansion is one to keep an eye on. From just six theaters, the A24 release has grossed $596k through its second weekend with the highest theater average of any film this year, and now it sees if the fever for the film can continue as it opens nationwide. The Darren Aronofsky-directed story of an extremely obese man reconnecting with his estranged daughter is a comeback film for Brendan Fraser who is an Oscar frontrunner for Best Actor, and while many Oscar hopefuls have been sluggish at the box office, there is hope that this film bucks the trend. Also notable in the specialty box office is the limited opening of Women Talking from United Artists Releasing. This highly acclaimed (89% on RT) drama from writer/director Sarah Polley stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand.