James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water grossed a promising $17 million in Thursday night previews at the North American box office as it flies into cinemas around the world.
If tracking is correct, The Way of Water should open to $150 million to $175 million domestically, and $450 million to $550 million globally. In China, preview grosses suggest the movie could open to $70 million or thereabouts (matters are complicated because of a major COVID outbreak). Overseas, the film has earned $50.4 million in its first two days (excluding China).
Disney, home of 20th Century, stresses that the sequel’s success depends more on its long term playability, versus a huge opening number. Distribution sources note that advance sales are spread out over the weekend and into next week, versus being frontloaded.
The first Avatar debuted to a relatively modest $77 million in mid-December 2009, but hung in for months (that film ran two hours and 41 minutes). And, earlier this year, Tom Cruise blockbuster Top: Gun Maverick opened to $126.7 million domestically, yet went on to amass a staggering $1.49 billion worldwide (Top Gun 2 earned $19.6 million in previews).
The Way of Water, costing $350 million to $400 million to produce before marketing, opens 13 years after the first Avatar became the top-grossing film of all time worldwide, a record it still holds with more than $2.92 billion in ticket sales, not adjusted for inflation.
One challenge: The film’s running time is a hefty three hours and 12 minutes, meaning fewer showtimes (at the same time, it faces almost no competition). The 3D tentpole is expected to see a huge share of its business come from Imax and other premium large format screens (it will be made available in digital 2D as well).
Avatar 2 hopes to join an elite club of longer Hollywood tentpoles that have done blockbuster business in theaters, including Disney/Marvel release Avengers: Endgame (three hours and 2 minutes) and Cameron’s Titanic (three hours and 14 minutes). The two films rank No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, on Comscore’s list of the top-grossing movies of all time at the worldwide box office behind Avatar (two hours and 41 minutes).
Cameron produced The Way of Water alongside his longtime Lightstorm partner Jon Landau. The movie stars Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang, and once again centers on Worthington’s Sully and Saldaña’s Na’vi character, Neytiri. It picks up a decade after the original and follows their family, with additional stars including franchise newcomers Kate Winslet.