“Avatar: the Way of Water” walked away empty-handed from the Golden Globes this week, but it continues to rain gold on James Cameron’s sci-fi epic where it truly matters: the cinema box office. The film is approaching the global USD $2 billion mark and is now the fifth-biggest International release of all time, meaning that Cameron’s films occupy three of the top five slots of highest grossing releases ever. It might now seem pre-ordained for James Cameron to once more be crowned King of the Cinema world, but that was not the universal sentiment prior to the film’s release.
There was much talk that too much time had elapsed since the first film for the sequel to work, never mind that “Top Gun Maverick” had been in gestation more than twice as long. There was pontification that the original “Avatar” had not left a significant enough imprint on popular culture to matter, despite having its own world in Disney theme parks. There were anecdotal stories about children of cinema industry insiders in their late teens, who were not interested in attending the red carpet opening, because it would mean having to put aside their smartphones and focus on the big screen instead of TikTok for three hours. The film did not generate as many memes, online clips or social media “buzz” as “Glass Onion” or even “M3gan.” There were those who said that the novelty of 3D had worn off a long time ago and that films like “The Hobbit” proved cinema audiences did not have an appetite for frame rates higher than good ole’ 24. Then there was the narrative that Covid and streaming had hastened the death of cinema. (To spare blushes we won’t name or link to the sources of any of the above sentiments.)
In the end a lot of people all over the world went to see “Avatar: The Way of Water” and they keep coming to the multiplex week after week. The “Avatar” sequel has been running for over a month and it is still pulling in big numbers while showing less week-on-week decline than other major blockbusters. The second “Avatar” film is already the highest grossing Hollywood film of all time in India. It would probably already have passed the two billion dollar mark, had it not been that Russia is only showing a pirated version of the film, while the infection wave sweeping China following the reversal of the Zero Covid policy means that the film has under-performed, compared to pre-release predictions. There is also the strong dollar, which means that overseas earnings count for less on a per-ticket basis than domestic admissions. At this stage it doesn’t matter whether the sequel will be the fourth or second biggest global release of all time. Why? Because what matters is that there will be more Avatars.
James Cameron cleverly downplayed expectations ahead of the “Avatar 2” release, knowing full well that hoping to hit a hat trick of three #1 films of all time in a row would be hubris to rival that of most Greek heroes. Having spent over a decade working on the follow-up to Avatar, Cameron was playing the long game; knowing that all he needed was for the second film to make enough money to green-light the third, fourth and fifth Avatars. For anyone who thinks that Disney was always going to do this, look at the time it took for Warner Bros to approve the second part of Denis Villeneuve “Dune” saga. Read this interview/talk between the two directors and note how Cameron praises “Dune” for being “epic” in a way that Marvel films are not. Cameron must have been quietly observing and taking notes as Warner Bros. left Villeneuve dangling during last year’s awards season as to whether his fellow Canadian would be allowed to complete his vision.
In interviews Cameron said that “Avatar: the Way of Water” would need to earn USD $1.4 billion to break even, though in truth the film was probably in profit well before then, even if it cost USD $250 million to make and an equal amount to market. The costs for the rest of the “Avatar” saga are also likely to have been front-loaded into the first film, in terms of research ad development and more. There is an old joke that the first copy of Microsoft Windows 98 (ask your parents what that is) cost in the region of USD $100 million to make, but that the second copy cost $5. The “Avatar” sequels will not be as cheap, but a similar principle applies and we will not have to wait over a decade for them.
Cameron will probably spend the rest of his life on Pandora, possibly doing some more documentaries and maybe even handing over the reins at some point. He has said himself that he is not worried where in the all-time ranking the second Avatar will end up. “I’m not thinking of it in those terms,” Cameron recently told Variety “I’m thinking of it in the terms of we’re going back to theaters around the world. They’re even going back to theaters in China where they’re having this big Covid surge. We’re saying as a society, ‘We need this! We need to go to theaters.’ Enough with the streaming already! I’m tired of sitting on my ass.”
As well as being happy to see people flock back to the cinema, Cameron must be pleased that he will get to complete his vision. While it is unlikely that “Avatar: the Way of Water” will pick up golden statuettes for anything other than technical categories at the upcoming Academy Awards, let’s remember that it was not until the third “Lord of the Rings” films that Peter Jackson got the Oscar for Best Film. In the meantime AMPAS should consider giving Cameron an Oscar for Best Defying of Nay-Sayers.
By the way, if you want to learn more about the current state of the cinema industry in China, be sure to join our upcoming CJ Cinema Summit next week when we speak with Lawrence Wang of Vista China.
Rediscover the world of Pandora in the Avatar sequel
Watch director James Cameron reveal how Dolby technology enhances the 3D experience and lets the audience experience the world alongside the characters.
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