The jury is still out, and Other Box Office News.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Lemme fling some cold water on your expectations right away by telling you this for a fact: anybody who claims after this opening weekend that Avatar: The Way of Water is either a huge success or a colossal failing disappointment has no fucking idea what they’re talking about. That’s the truth. I know we tend to write Box Office narratives in the first 48 hours nowadays, placing gigantic stock on that initial opening weekend and not exactly without reason, given the statistical evidence that movies are demonstrating (on average) ever-worsening legs year on year. And Way of Water is the long-awaited sequel to the literal biggest movie of all-time in an age where the MCU, in particular, has conditioned everyone to expect mega-bucks sequel openings of increasing levels of record-breaking. Then there’s Jimmy Cameron himself out here claiming that the movie needs to be “the third or forth highest-grossing film in history” to break-even since, without any officially reported budget – we just have speculative estimates who put it anywhere between $350 mil and $400 mil – all we know for certain is that the movie is crazy-expensive.
That’s not even taking the fanboyism into account, the people really invested in the narrative that Avatar left no cultural footprint and not wanting to discover their worldviews have been super-bubble-wrapped, plus Cameron being the kind of charmed miracle-worker who is annoyingly egotistical and cocky about that fact. So, I get why everyone will be running to their Hot Takes pods looking for those hyperbolic outrage clicks following the opening weekend. Thing is, as mentioned, these people are children with no idea what the fuck they’re on about. The only way we could really slap a definitive narrative on Way of Water would have been if it fully and totally bombed in those first three days; like, less than the original movie opened to domestically and less than $100 mil international. If that had happened, you could stick a fork in Avatar and call the time of death right then cos no length of legs would ever push this thing close to success.
As you could probably tell by my leaning fully into the “stern junior school teacher who has to be the grown-up in the room” schtick, that ain’t what happened. The Way of Water opened to $134 million in the US; admittedly below industry expectations (which were frankly ludicrous to begin with and yes I am looking at you Box Office Mojo) and on the very low end of Disney’s initial projections. If Actuals hold, that’ll be tied with The Batman for the year’s fifth-best opening which is good but not great. It’s not quite double what the original Avatar opened to back in 2009 and its day-to-day holds, whilst significantly better than nearly any other blockbuster this year, are still tangibly weaker than that prior film.
Then, of course, there’s inflation and rising ticket prices to take into account, where going to the cinema costs much more now than it did back then. Lastly for red flags, Mojo are reporting that 31% of tickets sold are coming for formats like IMAX and 4DX, big special attractions which cost more money but are also highly limited in how many screenings they can squeeze in each day (especially when your movie is 191 minutes long), and a further 31% of tickets came from non-special 3D screenings. It’s all well and good that audiences are going for the ultra-premium experience when choosing to see Way of Water. But for a three-hour movie with an astronomical budget, you really would’ve hoped that there’d be a bigger buffer from standard 2D screenings to shore up those limited, though sold-out, possible IMAX screenings. You do need a wide spread rather than just relying on one star to do all the work for you; look how that turned out for France in the World Cup final. (I think that jokes works? I don’t know anything about soccball.)
So, those are all the reasons to be cautious. If we were talking about anybody else and any film else, then I’d better understand the desire to break out the fire extinguishers and scream madly. But we ain’t talking about anybody else or any film else. We’re talking about James Cameron and the sequel to Avatar. To focus specifically on opening weekends, those have never been Cameron’s strong suit. In fact, the original Avatar was his biggest opening weekend ever and that was merely the fifth-biggest of 2009. Titanic, the previous biggest film of all-time, opened to less than Terminator 2 with a similar astronomical budget. What has always distinguished James Cameron hits have been their legs. Both Titanic and Avatar displayed legs longer than those of Margot Robbie in the Barbie teaser as audiences kept going back again and again and again for ages afterwards. And there is reason to believe that Avatar 2 could yet pull off another Cameron-esque run for reasons beyond “nobody’s releasing a goddamned thing til February.”
Firstly, those day-to-day numbers. Read on their own, they represent steady drops of the kind every blockbuster goes through. But if you look closer, like The Numbers have done, and you’ll see that taking out the Thursday night previews, which make up a much greater chunk of the Box Office nowadays than they did in 2009, causes Saturday to display a notable increase in foot-traffic compared to Friday proper which very rarely happens. There is, of course, the “A” Cinemascore that indicates strong word-of-mouth from those who went opening day and was required for this thing’s long-term chances. In reporting those IMAX shares, Mojo also noted that a good number of pre-sales for Way of Water were for screenings which come after the opening weekend.
On a similar note, we’re about to entire the weird limbo period that is the Xmas/New Year’s fortnight where more people have days off, seasonal money to burn, etc. and, consequently, the opening and sophomore weekends display unusual tails both good and bad. There’s a non-zero chance the weekday takings do some strong loadbearing, just like the original Avatar did. And, lastly, about that Cameron quote from the very beginning… I wouldn’t actually put all that much stock in it? By which I mean: it’s no secret that Cameron and crew have been shooting their Avatar sequels together, rather than wrapping Way of Water and waiting to see how that performed before diving into the next one. Avatar 3 wrapped shooting in December 2020 and is in the middle of its lengthy VFX post-production, whilst the first act of Avatar 4 is apparently already filmed. I don’t think anybody involved in the production of The Way of Water could honestly tell you how much that movie specifically cost if you held a gun to their head. Hollywood Accounting is almost definitely in full effect with this one and they’ve probably just pulled from a shared budget to such an extent that nobody knows what actually makes these movies a quantifiable success.
Oh, and I almost forgot to bring up the International numbers in all this! They’re really good even with a major handicap. $301 million total, scoring record openings in Lithuania, Turkey, Germany, and just about improving on the original’s opening in the UK despite the horrendous weather conditions this weekend. China, of course, is where the real stakes lay given that Avatar was basically their Star Wars. $51 million, which might be better than the original’s opening weekend there – I can’t find exact numbers anywhere and I’ve already spent long enough on the pre-amble as is – and that’s with the country’s current major COVID resurgence affecting everything. Not a load of headline grabbers, but objectively a more than good enough start.
So… an entire essay to come to the conclusion that “the jury is still out.” I know that’s disappointing to a lot of you who were hoping for concrete answers either way, but sometimes that’s really not how things work. Anyone who tries to insist otherwise is talking out their blue arsehole. It’s not gonna be until our next meet-up, at the start of 2023 for the State of the Box Office Report, that we’ll have some semblance of an idea as to whether or not James Cameron’s luck has finally run out. It’s all about the legs on this one. And before anyone questions if healthy months-long legs are even a thing anymore, I’d just like to remind them that Top Gun: Maverick opened in May and didn’t drop out of the weekly Top 10s until mid-October. A fool who bets against James Cameron and his money are often parted.
*glances at word count* Ah, shit. Right, Full List, let’s go!
US Box Office Results: Friday 16th December 2022 – Sunday 18th December 2022
1] Avatar: The Way of Water
$134,000,000 / NEW
Because I know somebody is going to accuse me of being an industry shill or Cameron coper, I wrote that entire essay as somebody who did not like Avatar, did not like The Way of Water, and really does not want to have to see a minimum of four more of these over the next decade. I really tried my best to see what everyone else does in Water, but I was just bored out of my mind and the effects did not wow me – mostly because, just like in the original, Cameron is so fixated on photorealism that the art direction lacks any uniqueness or alien sensation that I feel will hold up once the tech becomes outdated. And even I can tell you that nobody knows if this is a bomb/success yet. Anyways, Dave Bond has review duties covered for now.
2] Violent Night
$5,616,975 / $34,962,000
Good fun, this! What’s funniest of all is how straight everyone ends up playing the central joke. Like, once you get past the initial surliness, this is an actual Xmas movie about coming together during the season, seeing the good in people, and “Christmas magic” all played completely earnest with no snark. Definitely 10 minutes too long, but I very much enjoyed myself!
3] Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
$5,400,000 / $418,991,185
Honestly, my opinion on The Way of Water was not helped by my immediately going to rewatch Wakanda Forever afterwards. Ryan Coogler is unfathomably good at making movies and, despite us seeing way less of both locations than we do Pandora, I am more invested and believe in both Wakanda and Talokan as places from just one movie than Cameron’s managed in two. Almost like having some tangible set dressings, unique art and design, and likeable complex characters does far more for convincing worldbuilding than all the fanciest CG technology can craft.
4] Strange World
$2,200,000 / $33,778,060
To take the conversation away from Avatar for a while, Netflix finally released Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio the other Friday so we can at last bring the number of good Pinocchio movies released in 2022 up to 1. Dave Bond’s got the rave you crave.
5] The Menu
$1,700,000 / $32,122,499
Maybe I was also grumpy throughout Avatar 2 cos my 2D Cineworld screening did not play me the Barbie teaser beforehand, the ABSOLUTE HOMOPHOBES! …ahem. I did watch it when I got home, though, and the serotonin it provided is gonna sustain me singlehandedly through to at least February.
$825,000 / $18,660,954
Yeah, it’s a real bleak state of affairs for the rest of this. We’ll dive in proper in the New Year.
7] The Fabelmans
$750,000 / $8,554,881
Two separate Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla movies had their anniversaries last week, which was a headache to realise on the editing side of things, lemme tell you. One person who never got confused over which film was which and came out when, though, was Amy Walker who covered both Mechagodzilla II and Against Mechagodzilla which in some locations was called Mechagodzilla III despite being a reboot and my brain is meltihhgjhfjhfjhvv.
8] Black Adam
$500,000 / $167,722,380
It’s official: Henry Cavill is no more as Superman, which likely also means that The Rock will be no more as Black Adam in the very near-future. Don’t cry too hard for Cavill, though. He’s just inked a deal to EP a Warhammer franchise for Amazon Studios which, as has been made very clear over the years, was always his true passion. Actually, given how the Internet decided to get all weird about Amazon’s adaptations of Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings, maybe do cry for him because he’s unlikely to ever know a day’s peace again once any concrete info about the first Warhammer project comes out.
9] I Heard the Bells
$309,815 / $4,993,048
Podmas rolls ever onwards! How about checking out Charlie Brigden’s write-up of Cinematic Sound Radio, a podcast dedicated to discussing film and gaming soundtracks?
10] Empire of Light
$235,000 / $471,821
As repeatedly inferred, no BOR next week. Wendy, the head editor supremo around here, deserves to have an actual xmas break so we’re gonna go on hiatus til the New Year. Don’t despair, though, for Listmas takes over Set the Tape next week! Do check back for that cos we’ve put a lot of hard work into it! Have a merry holiday! Try not spend too much of it on the imploding bird app!
Dropped out: Spoiler Alert, MET Opera: The Hours
Callie Petch is an animal just like you.