Avatar: The Way of Water’ Dives In With Below-Expectations $134 Million Debut
After a 13 year gap, Avatar: The Way of Water is finally here. James Cameron’s first of many planned sequels to Avatar, the world’s highest grossing film of all time (which itself topped Cameron’s own Titanic as the highest grossing film of all time), opened below expectations with $134 million. Yes, this is still a huge opening, but it is not the sort of start you would hope for on a film that, as Cameron claims, would “have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” to break even. With that said (and whether or not that statement regarding the film’s breakeven point is fully accurate), this is not a film to count out, and it could see strong numbers for the rest of the year and well into the new year. Either way, it’s great to have a heavy hitter back in theaters again, and Avatar: TWOW led an overall box office of $152 million, making this the second highest grossing weekend of the past five months.

There are a few ways of looking at the opening of The Way of Water, and they boil down to the question of if Avatar 2 will end up as a typical huge blockbuster or if it plays like another James Cameron box office phenomenon. On one hand, it’s “just” the fifth best opening of the year and 37th biggest of all time, tied with The Batman (though it may end up over or under once the actuals come out) but not exactly numbers fit for the sequel to the film that broke nearly every box office record in the books. On the other hand, it’s the sixth best opening ever for December, the month’s best non-MCU and non-Star Wars opening, 74% ahead of the first Avatar ($77 million) and 5.5% ahead of this year’s own box office champ Top Gun: Maverick ($127 million). If it plays like The Batman, which went on to gross $369 million (a 2.8 multiplier, better legs than any of this year’s MCU films), then it’d be hard not to be underwhelmed by the sequel, even putting aside its allegedly gargantuan budget (such a finish would be less than half of the first Avatar’s $750 million cume in its original release). However, playing closer to Top Gun: Maverick, which had a 5.7 multiplier and grossed $719 million, is not out of the question, which would consequently put it in the league of Cameron’s other box office smashes. Ending up somewhere in between seems like the likeliest bet, but it’s ultimately too early to make any calls on this one.

We’ll get a better sense of the film’s fate over the next two weeks which can essentially play like a giant long weekend with Christmas falling next Sunday, New Year’s the following Sunday, and plenty of days off school and work between now and then. There’s reason to believe the legs on TWOW will be unusually strong. For one, around 1/5th of the film’s presales are post-opening weekend, compared to a negligible amount on the typical big blockbuster. We’re also already seeing concrete signs that this is less front-loaded than the average franchise film, with Saturday’s gross coming in at 16% below Friday’s. That’s the best Saturday hold for a $100+ million opener since Frozen II in 2019 which actually grew 19% in its second day of release (for comparison’s sake, Top Gun: Maverick dropped 27% Friday to Saturday and Spider-Man: No Way Home dropped 39%). No big blockbusters are coming out until Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania releases on February 17th, and while that’s no guarantee of strong legs, it does mean TWOW has the premium screens largely to itself for two months.

That’s good news for the film which is doing 31% of its business from IMAX and other premium large formats (aka PLFs), not to mention an additional 31% from 3D screens separate from the PLFS. Other good news is that audiences like the film, with the A CinemaScore matching the first film. Also, don’t forget that an unremarkable opening followed by extraordinary legs is the James Cameron box office pattern, with Titanic having a multiplier of 21 to propel it from an opening of $28.6 million to a cume of $601 million in its initial release, and Avatar having a multiplier of 9.7. With a bigger opening, TWOW bound to be more frontloaded, but a more modest but still realistic multiplier of 4.7 would be enough to make it into the top ten of the all time domestic box office.

Internationally the film opened to $301 million, bringing the global weekend total to $435 million. It’s the second biggest global start of the year, right at the tail of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ $442 million global bow. 3D and PLFs are ruling overseas as well, with the combined total of the formats making up two-thirds of the box office, and it is the second highest global opening ever for IMAX, where it brought in $48.8 million from 1,543 screens across 80 markets. The biggest international market for The Way of Water’s opening was China with $57.1 million, a nice addition to the box office but still a disappointingly low start as a result of the country going through a Covid surge. The China release was seen as a boon for TWOW given the huge numbers the first film did in the country ($262 million including the re-releases) and the small amount of Hollywood films that even made it to the market in recent years. However, it may end up as a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, the international debut is a strong one. Other markets in the top five include South Korea ($24.7 million), France ($19.3 million) and Germany ($19.9 million) which saw their best openings since the start of the pandemic, and India ($18.1 million) where it had the second highest non-local opening of all time.

Beyond Avatar 2, there’s hardly any action at the box office. When Avatar opened in the same weekend in 2009, the rest of the box office grossed a total of $61 million. This weekend, the runners up had a collective cume of a pitiful $18 million. Yes, the slate of new titles this month would likely have been stronger if there weren’t a high profile sequel sucking up all the oxygen, but even in 2019 when Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker opened in the pre-Christmas weekend, the other films in theaters totaled $70 million. It would be nice to say that Avatar 2 is leading a strong end of the year box office wave, but it is more accurate to say it is keeping the box office on life support. Hopefully the next week’s releases, which include Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Babylon, and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, will help balance things out.

There isn’t much of note in the rest of the box office, and nothing outside of the top five even grossed over $1 million. The one film to hold notably well was Violent Night, which held onto second place in its third weekend, coming ahead of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever after spending two weekends behind it. The R-rated Christmas action-comedy was down just 36% (about the same as last weekend) with $5.6 million, bringing the total to $35 million. With a worldwide cume of $55 million, the $20 million budgeted film has one of the season's merrier balance sheets.

Black Panther 2 came in third with $5.4 million, bringing the total to $419 million. It is now the eighth highest grossing MCU film and should finish as the seventh, and it is also the year’s second highest grossing film as of now. Worldwide the cume is $786 million.

Strange World came in fourth as it brought in $2.2 million in its fourth weekend for a cume of $33.8 million domestic and $57 million worldwide. Fifth place went to The Menu with $1.7 million, pushing the total to $32.1 million domestic and $61.3 million worldwide.