It’s been 84 years, but Avatar: The Way of Water… is here? Might need to buy a ticket to be sure. Besides, theatres are in dire straits, and The Way of Water may be the Hail Mary pass to put them at ease after a prolonged period of disappointing grosses. Avatar itself needs to drum up a huge gross to justify the immense investment Disney has wagered on Cameron’s passion project (a series, a saga if we’re pushing it). The Way of Water alone comes with an estimated $350 million price tag. Director James Cameron insists that his film will be another in a long line of smash successes, but, in the event of cataclysm, the essentially completed Avatar 3 can be converted into a capper to a trilogy, rather than a stepping stone along the way to the five (or indeed many more than five) films planned. People have been betting against Cameron for decades now, and if we’ve learned anything thus far, it’s not to do precisely that.
Even when’s he’s gone overbudget, Cameron knows how to play the game. Take Titanic as an example, where the director forfeited his $8 million salary as soon as the production went over budget, then turned around and made the studio a cool two billion dollars. This is how you get to make your blue-people movie.
As the years have ticked by, the term most often lobbed at the first Avatar has been ‘cultural impact’. Specifically, pundits and audiences insist that the original Avatar has proven to have left little to no impression when you consider its immense popularity at the time of release. Certainly, its stature has diminished since the days it became number one and netted all those Oscars, and the sequel won’t have the technological novelty of its predecessor, but just as we should never underestimate Cameron, underestimating the Disney marketing industrial complex is a fool’s errand.
Ads, posters, billboards, sponsorships, tie-ins; everything has been turned to 11, while Cameron has been cleverly leaning into the extraneous discussions of Avatar’s merits and making promises only he could get away with. A personal favourite: “Don’t worry about needing to go to the bathroom during the 3-hour runtime, you can catch the scene you missed when you watch the movie for the second time”. Even the trailers aren’t holding back; one boasts that The Way of Water constitutes “The Motion Picture Event of a Generation”, more comparable to the marketing of Citizen Kane then other recent blockbusters. Even if you’re a movie fan with an Avatar hang-up, they’ve got you covered; if you catch an opening weekend screening in the U.S. you’ll get 4-minutes of behind the scenes material from Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, while the Oppenheimer trailer is set to debut ahead of screenings as well. This onslaught, combined with a near complete lack of real competition (as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever begins slowing down), has set Avatar up nicely.
The Chinese market was key to the original’s (and so too will be for the follow-up’s) success, though with Covid restrictions on the rise across the country, and the number of open theatres down to a smattering, it seemed as though The Way of Water’s international total was in serious jeopardy. And then, strangely… things began to turn. First 757 cinemas reopened (59% capacity), then another 1044 (68%), reaching a peak of 73.7% of total theatres. If you didn’t know any better, you might assume Cameron had single-handedly reopened Chinese movie theatres (he does claim that the Chinese government requested the rerelease of the first Avatar to encourage theatre-going post-lockdown).
Presales are solid, and this is especially encouraging considering most Cameron films open well, and then leg-out to staggering grosses. Covid has somewhat lessened the very concept of legs (except, of course, for the miracle that was Top Gun: Maverick), but early Golden Globe nominations and a relatively positive critical reception bode well for walk-ups and return business.
All of this is to say; the opening weekend is much easier to predict than the final gross (though with a storm raging across the Northeast, domestic numbers may be on the downturn). We should see a domestic opening weekend around $130 million, with a global opening of $500 million at least. The final total (remember to apply salt by the pinch-load) could land around $1,500,000.
The film opens this weekend (or so they say), so we’ll know soon enough.