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  • Writer's pictureSwati Bhat

‘Avatar 2’ Needs to Become a Box Office Juggernaut.

Director James Cameron has been clear about the stakes for his long-delayed sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The science-fiction epic is so expensive, he says, it represents “the worst business case in movie history,” meaning it needs to become one of the three or four top-grossing movies of all time just to break even.

Swati Bhat

20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection

By that metric, “The Way of Water” needs to clear $2 billion to justify its price tag and please Disney, which holds the rights to “Avatar” after acquiring 20th Century Fox in 2019. The studio spent a jaw-dropping $350 million to produce and even more to market the grand return to Pandora, making it one of the costliest tentpoles ever.

Only five movies in history — 2009’s “Avatar” ($2.9 billion globally), “Avengers: Endgame” ($2.7 billion), “Titanic” ($2.1 billion), “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($2.07 billion) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($2.05 billion) — have surpassed the $2 billion mark, and those were in the best of conditions. In pandemic times, it’ll be that much harder. Even as a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time, does “The Way of Water” have what it takes to become the sixth?

“Avatar: The Way of Water” debuted to $134 million in North America and $435 million globally over the weekend, a solid start despite falling short of expectations. It stands as the third-biggest global opening weekend since the pandemic, following “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($442 million globally) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($600 million globally). Yet only one of those films, the Spidey adventure, managed to reach the billion-dollar mark with $1.9 billion worldwide. Even with its towering debut and impressive legs at the box office, “No Way Home” couldn’t conquer the elusive $2 billion club. And just two others in COVID times, “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” had enough staying power to hit $1 billion.

“James Cameron is setting the bar so high for himself,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst, who believes Hollywood has gotten overly accustomed to Marvel-sized opening weekends. Unlike those superhero adventures, which often start strong (usually to the tune of $180 million to $200 million) and fall sharply in its second weekend, “Avatar” doesn’t have the kind of spoiler warnings that demand it’s seen as soon as possible. Yes, industry experts were expecting “The Way of Water” to make more to start. But Dergarabedian says that focusing on the film’s domestic debut “misses the point of Cameron’s entire career. It’s never been about opening weekend for him.”

To his point, Cameron’s biggest films, “Avatar” and “Titanic,” started slower at the box office and built huge audiences over time. The first “Avatar” opened with a decent but hardly dazzling $77 million domestically more than a decade ago. But thanks to pricey 3D tickets and repeat viewings, the film managed to draw crowds for months, eventually climbing to $760 million in North America and more than $2 billion internationally. “Titanic,” too, didn’t notch records with its $28 million debut in 1997. But the romantic disaster story had unparalleled staying power, becoming the first movie to ever cross $1 billion. Cameron tends to play the long game at the box office.

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