Long Range Box Office Forecast: James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water

Photo Credits: Disney & 20th Century Studios ("Avatar: The Way of Water")

One of the most discussed big screen releases in quite some time is just four weeks away, with one of the world’s most accomplished filmmakers set to unleash his first sequel in over three decades.

This week’s report takes a look at how preliminary tracking is shaping up for the final tentpole of 2022 before tickets reportedly go on sale next week.

Avatar: The Way of Water
20th Century Studios (Disney)
December 16, 2022

Please note that early tracking ranges listed below are considered highly volatile given the wide range of factors in play for this release. Current pinpoint forecasts lean slightly toward the cautious end of models for the time being.

PROS:

  • Avatar was one the highest grossing film of all time in the domestic market thirteen years ago, since only surpassed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame.

    Its impact on many audiences at the time varied between those who were drawn by the revolutionary visual effects and 3D, casual viewers who appreciated the story’s adventure and/or were swept up in the hype and societal thematic relevance of the film, and the die-hard fans who embraced James Cameron’s world-building aspects as part of a new science fiction franchise.
  • Cameron has been busy working on multiple follow-ups to his original Avatar for more than a decade since its record-breaking global run, with multiple sequels in the pipeline and numerous delays in that timespan leading up to this long awaited release.

    The filmmaker has often had his long-in-development cinematic projects underestimated in the past, including Avatar itself and 1997’s Titanic. His own confidence and prior success in delivering crowd-pleasing films should be weighted in expectations.
  • With theatrical rebounds in the post-pandemic era of moviegoing relying on premium screen experiences and large-scale films such as the Avatar franchise, this is exactly the kind of film that could bring the less-than-frequent moviegoer if reception is strong and captures the zeitgeist in any way.
  • Competition is minimal with the remainder of December and most of January serving as a long holiday and post-holiday runway for The Way of Water to capitalize on its inevitably strong demand in IMAX and other PLFs. This should result in strong sales for all formats, though there is some volatility to expectations here as Disney has not announced whether or not 2D showings will be evenly offered to cater to those not wishing to view the 3D version.
  • Cameron’s films typically draw a diverse audience across gender and ethnicity, which should be another strength for this sequel as minorities have become an increasingly larger share of the moviegoing population and he is known to create universally appealing characters.
  • Although its domestic release alone should achieve “hit status”, the international appeal of Avatar and Cameron’s fan base will be even more significant for box office receipts — even without a confirmed release in China. The first film drew 73 percent of its original $2.744 billion global haul from outside North America, and its re-release this past September drew a comparable 67 percent of its $75.5 million worldwide gross from international territories.
  • Since Avatar‘s original 2009 opening, theatrical ticket prices have increased due mostly to natural economic expansion. Average prices for that film were between an estimated $10 and $11 due to 3D surcharges at the time. With today’s current base averages and an expectation that Way of Water will again lean heavily on PLF ticket sales, and at least decently so on 3D, average prices will likely reach $14 to $15 or higher for this film.
  • Despite the first movie’s lack of perceived cultural staying power since the end of its theatrical run, this sequel could defy the odds again.

    In an era where consumers have certain kinds of movies more readily available to stream at home, while big blockbusters generally work across the board with a preferential choice to first be seen in a cinema before repeat viewings at home, is Avatar perhaps the kind of spectacle-driven movie on the extreme end of the spectrum that only truly works for the mass audience in a theatrical setting?

CONS:

  • The original film drew 80 percent of its gross from 3D showings, leading to a brief industry boom that saw studios and high-profile features attempt to piggyback off that success. While it worked for a brief time, moviegoers quickly gravitated away from the format as ticket sales declined and began favoring traditional and other premium formats over what many now view as having been a short-lived fad.

    The 3D format grew so unpopular with most moviegoers that studios began abandoning it as a release option within just a handful years following Avatar‘s release. Only a select few major films utilize the format today, with Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever recently drawing just 10 and 11 percent, respectively, of their opening grosses from 3D shows.

    Will audiences be enticed to try 3D once again knowing that it’s James Cameron’s creative vision?
  • At a reported 3-hour-and-10-minute runtime, The Way of Water is 30 minutes longer than its predecessor. Cameron is no stranger to lengthy narratives becoming box office behemoths, and audiences will go along for the ride when pacing is strong (see The Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Endgame, Titanic, and others), but such a length will limit showtimes per day — particularly in the premium theaters that will be highly important to this film’s box office ceiling.
  • More than five years ago, the Avatar brand expanded into the theme park arena with its Orlando, Florida opening in 2017. Otherwise, the original Avatar has often been criticized for lacking a memorable or sustained pop culture footprint in the way of Star Wars, Marvel, and other franchises.

    While it could be an oversight to say interest won’t spike again for Cameron’s first film in over a decade, this is justifiable cause to expect a run by Way of Water that will likely be less front-loaded than a typical franchise sequel as audiences from varying generations re-discover the brand.
  • The unknowns. Marketing has been very quiet outside of a teaser trailer and trailer, both of which reveal minimal plot details to the masses. This could serve to amplify the selling point of mystery, but social media sentiment so far suggests there is still work to be done in highlighting the broader aspects of the sequel that will help make it another massive event.

    The first film and its trailers also featured a balanced mix of human actors in the largely CG film, the former of which are not near as obviously present in early marketing for the sequel.

Long Range Box Office Forecast & 2022’s Upcoming Calendar
(as of 11/18/22)

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Low/High Range Domestic Total Low/High Range Expected Location Count Distributor
11/23/2022 Bones and All (wide expansion) $2,000,000 – $4,000,000 $7,000,000 – $13,000,000 2,500 United Artists Releasing
11/23/2022 Devotion $6,000,000 – $11,000,000 $21,000,000 – $46,000,000 3,200 Sony / Columbia Pictures
11/23/2022 The Fabelmans (semi-wide expansion) $1,500,000 – $4,000,000 n/a 600 Universal Pictures
11/23/2022 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery $6,000,000 – $11,000,000 $12,000,000 – $25,000,000 600 Netflix
11/23/2022 Strange World $15,000,000 – $25,000,000 $51,000,000 – $86,000,000 3,900 Walt Disney Pictures
12/2/2022 Emancipation       Apple Original Films
12/2/2022 Quintessential Quintuplets Movie       Crunchyroll / Sony
12/2/2022 Violent Night $8,000,000 – $13,000,000 $21,000,000 – $42,000,000   Universal Pictures
12/9/2022 Empire of Light (limited)       Searchlight Pictures
12/9/2022 Father Stu: Reborn $500,000 – $2,000,000 $1,000,000 – $5,000,000   Sony / Columbia Pictures
12/9/2022 Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies (expansion; limited Dec. 2)       Focus Features
12/9/2022 The Whale (platform)     NY / LA A24
12/16/2022 Avatar: The Way of Water $135,000,000 – $175,000,000 $475,000,000 – $720,000,000   Disney / 20th Century Studios

Unless otherwise noted, all above figures represent best and worst case scenarios for how each respective film is currently tracking based on existing market conditions and projected model fluctuation before release. These are not final forecasts.

Additional pinpoint opening weekend and domestic total projections are available to clients. For more information on forecasts, pricing, and availability, please contact us.

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