One of the most important releases of this year (and next, to some degree) arrives this weekend as James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water ends a thirteen-year wait for fans of the filmmaker’s previous blockbuster event.
To say expectations are varied and volatile is an understatement.
Prior to other industry projections, independent tracking initially pegged the sequel at anywhere between a $135 million and $175 million domestic opening. Following very encouraging pre-sales and positive critic reception from world premieres last week, that range inflated somewhat to between $167 million and 192 million.
Trends are coming back to down earth — but only slightly, and with crucial context to keep in mind.
Reviews and Audience Impact
Critical reception following the official embargo drop this week is quite positive, scoring 82 percent from 167 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes so far. For the moment, that’s identical to the 2009 film’s 82 percent (which also posts the same audience score), yet pre-sales have not enjoyed the kind of typical bump once expected for major films that often benefit from a final push of buzz generated by critics’ opinions.
Those bumps have been less in effect in recent years — particularly in the post-pandemic era of theatrical recovery. In an evolutionarily matured social media world, genuine interest and word of mouth from real audiences have arguably taken on more weight in a film’s pre-release prospects except when critical reception is sharply negative or near-unanimously raving.
It’s speculative reasoning on top of many other factors long discussed in relation to this film. A three-hour-plus runtime, lingering negative sentiment toward 3D, a half-generation wait and absence of significant pop cultural presence by the first movie… all of these talking points frame the unpredictability of The Way of Water at the box office.
A fresh element to consider on the “wild card” side of things is also a swath of bad weather currently working its way across North America and poised to impact northeastern markets over the weekend.
Some intangibles lean positive, though.
James Cameron has built a career around an uncanny ability to win big bets and overcome deep doubts by industry spectators with movies that the general populous loves, often attracting the coveted infrequent moviegoers of the world. This film is also being marketed heavily as one which must be experienced in the most premium of premium screens, something both social media sentiment and pre-sales exemplify.
Sales are heavily favoring some version of IMAX or other PLF, many of which are in 3D. The most sluggish of interest so far, at least in pre-sales tracking: non-premium format 3D and non-premium 2D screenings, though the latter can partly be attributable to minimal offerings until more shows began to populate this week.
On this point, it’s worth while to also consider what — if any — impact may come about because of consumer confusion.
This isn’t just a film playing in IMAX, Dolby, RPX, 4DX, ScreenX, et al. It’s also playing in 3D and 3D with High Frame Rate, plus 2D and 2D with High Frame Rate. HFR hasn’t been tested with audiences on a major scale since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ten years ago, and it didn’t go over well at the time. Can The Way of Water change that perception?
If that weren’t enough, some iterations will be in 4K resolution, while others will be in 2K. (That factor is not widely advertised, though.)
Monitoring 3D Shares and Pre-Sale Trends
The impact of the long runtime and preference toward premium screens could also have net positives as well. Particularly with the holidays around the corner as consumers have time off work and school, there isn’t the kind of immediate demand to rush out and see this sequel as there would be other times of the year.
That’s further bolstered by the fact that spoiler concerns are minimal, relative to something like a major Marvel or Star Wars event release. Rather, the time and desire for the best possible cinematic experience are stronger motivating factors. This could tangentially be associated with the notion that Water, like Cameron’s prior films, have a strong adult-lean.
This all bears out in late-stage market sampling research.
Entering Wednesday, Way of Water‘s Friday ticket purchases were over 35 percent higher than those of Thursday previews based on independent market sampling. By comparison, front-loaded franchise films such as Thor: Love and Thunder and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness saw Friday pre-sales that were 30 percent and 20 percent lower, respectively, from their Thursdays at the same Tuesday mile markers before opening.
Those are incredibly significant trends to watch for considering that less fervor-driven films like Jurassic World Dominion and Top Gun: Maverick also saw Friday sales at an estimated 29 percent ahead of Thursday previews when measured at the same Tuesday checkpoint. (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever notably bucked the Marvel trend with stronger Friday inclinations as well, but that was in part due to Veterans Day.)
Studio sources report that Saturday and Sunday account for 47 percent of overall weekend pre-sales. That’s compared to other studio estimates of 30 percent for Saturday and Sunday combined on most Marvel films, versus 40 percent for Dominion and Maverick.
According to research as of Tuesday evening, 46 percent of Way of Water‘s weekend showtimes in the United States are currently booked in non-IMAX 3D. That’s the highest among similar tentpole releases since the 2015 days of Jurassic World (44 percent) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (46 percent).
Broken down by exhibitors for the non-IMAX tranche, AMC’s share stands around 54 percent, Regal at 45 percent, Cinemark at 68 percent, and National Amusements at 69 percent.
Including IMAX, the United States showtime share ticks up to just under 50 percent.
All of this is to say that even if sales are both organically and inorganically backloaded by the multitude of elements playing into The Way of Water‘s complicated trajectories, the end result may be an even higher average ticket than already expected. Domestic tickets are averaging close to $11 in 2022, with openings of major tentpoles even higher due to the price inflation of premium formats.
Way of Water stands to benefit from additional 3D price bumps in non-IMAX showings, with some models projecting an average ticket price specifically for the Avatar sequel between $14.50 and $15.50 this weekend, depending on how walk-up sales for non-IMAX and non-3D shows shake out in the weighting.
For reference, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was estimated by multiple sources at a $13-plus average in its first frame with only 11 percent of revenue coming from non-IMAX 3D shows, the latter statistic according to Disney.
This context keeps some of the more bullish box office forecasts on the table, especially since the original Avatar drew an estimated 80 percent of its box office from 3D shows.
Domestic and Global Distribution Notes
As the traditional curtain raisers go, Disney is unfurling Cameron’s passion franchise-builder project at more than 4,100 domestic theaters and 12,000-plus screens. Previews officially begin on Thursday at 3pm.
Included in that blueprint are 400 IMAX 3D venues, 950 PLF screens (an estimated 75 percent of which will screen in 3D), more than 3,000 3D theaters, over 4,600 3D screens, 280 D-Box / 4D motion auditoriums, and 85 ScreenX locations.
On the global front, Disney is launching the pic on more than 52,000 screens. Cautious industry projections are for a potential $500 million-plus worldwide weekend opening, although independent models suggest close to $600 million could be on the table. An external force to consider internationally is the end of the World Cup this weekend.
Globally, the film hopes to become just the sixth ever to exceed $2 billion by the end of its run.
For those wondering, international showtime shares are up and down the spectrum depending on the market’s favorability toward 3D. Canada stands at 66 percent, Mexico at 30 percent, Brazil at 52 percent, Australia at 37 percent, and China near 100 percent, as reported by RealD.
Additional market showtime shares for non-IMAX 3D include: Austria (75 percent), France (63 percent), Germany (77 percent), Italy (55 percent), Netherlands (80 percent), Spain (53 percent), Switzerland (55 percent), and the United Kingdom and Ireland (51 percent).
The Way of Water will be the widest IMAX release in history with between 1,525 and 1,555 theaters. Included in that are the domestic market’s 400, between 720 and 750 in China, and 405 from remaining international markets.
Of note, 95 percent of China’s IMAX theaters are now open or planning to reopen in time for the film’s release this weekend. The market has continued to struggle with rolling closures and lagged behind other international countries’ theatrical recovery efforts in 2021 and 2022 due to local government’s zero-COVID policy.
The original Avatar is the highest grossing IMAX release of all time with over $270 million globally. The bulk of that was earned in 2009 through 2010 when only 300 IMAX screens were operating.
How Will Way of Water‘s Legs Develop?
Beyond everything else, the post-weekend multiple remains highly important.
Prior to December 2015, no film had ever reached $100 million in one weekend during this month. Since then, four Star Wars films and Spider-Man: No Way Home have done it (three of those going well past $200 million). The caveat is that those are proven fan-heavy franchises, yet they still generated an average lifetime gross domestic multiplier of 3.2x over their opening weekends.
For Way of Water, even the highest of those samples (Force Awakens‘ 3.8x and Rogue One‘s 3.4x) could represent the low-to-middle range of likely scenarios. Rogue, in fact, had the exact same calendar alignment in 2016 — and arguably more competition.
While the carryover fan base of the first Avatar will probably make this sequel more front-loaded than its predecessor, it’s still a very strong candidate to out-leg the likes of most Star Wars and Marvel films.
Word of mouth will ultimately determine how high Water can go, but it faces minimal competition through the holidays and January. Cameron’s ambitious epic will probably still be commanding most of the biggest and best premium screens well into January, if not early February.
For that reason, among others, opening weekend will only be the beginning of the story for Avatar: The Way of Water.
Final Forecast Ranges
Avatar: The Way of Water
Domestic Opening Weekend Range: $145 million — $179 million (pinpoint below)
Domestic Total Range: $574 million — 803 million ($665 million pinpoint forecast)
Weekend Forecast & Location Count Projections
Current projection ranges call for a 390 to 490 percent increase from last weekend’s $33.3 million top ten aggregate.
|Film||Distributor||3-Day Weekend Forecast||Projected Domestic Total through Sunday, December 18||Location Count Projection (as of Wed)||3-Day % Change from Last Wknd|
|Avatar: The Way of Water||Disney & 20th Century Studios||$161,000,000||$161,000,000||~4,100||NEW|
|Black Panther: Wakanda Forever||Disney & Marvel Studios||$4,600,000||$418,300,000||~3,400||-59%|
|Violent Night||Universal Pictures||$4,500,000||$34,400,000||~3,400||-48%|
|Strange World||Walt Disney Pictures||$2,500,000||$34,100,000||~2,700||-34%|
|The Menu||Disney / Searchlight Pictures||$1,800,000||$32,300,000||~1,900||-35%|
|Devotion||Sony / Columbia Pictures||$950,000||$18,900,000||~2,000||-53%|
|The Fabelmans||Universal Pictures||$800,000||$8,700,000||~1,000||-32%|
|Black Adam||Warner Bros. Pictures||$550,000||$167,800,000||~1,300||-59%|
|Empire of Light||Disney / Searchlight Pictures||$400,000||$635,000||~500||+146%|
*** The Whale, previously included based on an incorrect location count, has been removed from this forecast
All forecasts are subject to revision/finalization before the first confirmation of opening previews or Friday estimates from studios or official sources.
Theater counts are either studio estimates OR unofficial projections if preceded by “~”.
The above table does not necessarily represent the top ten as some studios do not finalize weekend location counts and/or an intent to report box office returns prior to publishing.