Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s sequel to the highest grossing movie of all time, just opened this past weekend to the tune of an estimated $134 million in North America. Those numbers are up 42.5 percent from the debut that the original Avatar enjoyed way back in 2009, which opened at $77 million. Even by the standards of heightened ticket price inflation, that appears to be a healthy increase in a vacuum.
Of course nothing is judged in a vacuum when considering a James Cameron movie.
Indeed, depending on where you look, the Avatar 2 box office debut is either a cautious sign that you still “should never bet against Cameron” (as goes conventional industry wisdom) or a harbinger that the king is dead and Avatar: The Way of Water is on a path toward financial disappointment. It likely couldn’t have helped expectations that Cameron himself mused to the press that for Avatar 2 to be considered a success it needs to gross over $2 billion. That would at least appear to be the ballpark after the mercurial director told GQ that it needs to become the third or fourth highest grossing movie of all-time—and the fourth currently is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which grossed $2.1 billion.
Add on that rival studios and industry prognosticators placed Avatar: The Way of Water at opening in the U.S. to between $150 and $175 million, and the sequel’s “soft” bow at $134 million suddenly looks a lot softer. In fact, it isn’t even among the five highest openings for a December release to date, with Avatar 2 trailing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latter of which opened the biggest at $260.1 million (and three of those other five also crossed $200 million in their first weekends).
And yet, Cameron’s previous successes at the capturing the all-time records never played the game of Marvel movies or modern Disney-owned Star Wars pictures which, generally speaking, aim for front-loaded openings that make the biggest splash. Rather both 1997’s Titanic and the original Avatar opened relatively mildly for a blockbuster of their eras (sounds familiar) and then… just sat at the top of the box office. For weeks and months, with small diminishing drops weekend-on-weekend as audiences kept returning to the spectacle.
For further context, in its second weekend Titanic opened to $28.6 million on Dec. 19, 1997 (likely taking a hit due to opening opposite the second Pierce Brosnan James Bond picture, Tomorrow Never Dies) and then increased its box office in its second weekend by 23.8 percent, grossing $35.5 million in the days after Christmas. The weekend after that, it dropped a meager six percent while still grossing a healthy $33.3 million. And on, and on it played, not falling from the No. 1 spot in the U.S. until the weekend of April 3, 1998.
Similarly, 2009’s Avatar opened a lot smaller than the then-highest grossing superhero movies, with the opening weekend records being owned by Spider-Man 3 ($151.1 million) and then The Dark Knight ($158.4 million). In comparison, Avatar’s $77 million premiere looked modest. Nonetheless, in its second weekend of release (which included Christmas Day), Avatar dropped an absurdly modest 1.8 percent, grossing $75.6 million. The weekend after that, it fell only 9.4 percent more, still earning $68.5 million.
On and on it went until it claimed the highest grossing record from Titanic.
Now, thanks to Cameron, the bar for Avatar: The Way of Water’s success is high—if not the highest grossing film of all time then becoming only the sixth movie to ever gross more than $2 billion globally. However, the first real test is not its opening weekend but its second weekend where box office observers will be waiting in baited breath to see if it can pull off something as miraculous as the first film and drop only a handful of percentage points—or incredulously increase its grosses as Titanic did. And then it would need to do so again during its third weekend.
The harbingers in this regard are hard to read, however. According to the widely respected industry pollsters at CinemaScore, audiences gave Avatar: The Way of Water an “A” CinemaScore, which is glowing. However, it is less shiny than Spider-Man: No Way Home’s “A+” CinemaScore from last year, the latter of which signaled near unanimous adoration from movie audiences—not that it prevented Spidey from dropping 67.5 percent in its second weekend and 33.7 percent in its third.
Of course Marvel plays a different game. Disney’s modern golden goose creates outsized hype and marketing buzz around an opening weekend “event” which gets as many people into the tent as soon as possible, and then sees the air start seeping out of the sides shortly afterward. The question for Avatar 2, then, is if the old school model still holds, especially after the pandemic?
Relying on word-of-mouth to grow an audience, as opposed to gracefully managing a truncating one, is an antiquated idea to the modern multiplex, and seems ever the more distant after audiences have shown a greater reluctance to leave their homes to watch movies since the 2020 pandemic shut down movie theaters for essentially over a year. Even in the years before the pandemic, The Force Awakens had a euphoric reception in December 2015 and still dropped just under 40 percent during both its second and third weekends.
For the record, those drops were still impressive by 2010s standards and indicated rapturous word-of-mouth, carrying The Force Awakens over the $2 billion line. However, it started at a much bigger front-loaded opening than The Way of Water enjoyed, with the first Disney Star Wars bowing at $248 million—more than $100 million more than Avatar 2. While The Way of Water has more IMAX screens to surcharge moviegoers than its 2009 predecessor… it doesn’t have that many more than The Force Awakens or No Way Home.
Can Avatar: The Way of Water wind up with a similar total cume to those movies despite opening smaller than The Batman and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1? Well, I still would not suggest betting against James Cameron, but these days the odds are stacked pretty severely against him.