The final trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water dropped last night during Monday Night Football. It continues to look very pretty. I continue to be unable to tell the blue cat people apart, but I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me? Is anyone else having a little trouble distinguishing between blue cat people? I also don’t know anybody’s names, and the trailers remain vague on plot, though this one does give the best sense yet of the story, which appears to be ongoing conflict and a retreat to a water kingdom where the newcomers are regarded a bit suspiciously, and the kids—I assume they’re kids—tease each other, then big fight at the end. Sounds a little…familiar. Sounds a little, er, Talokan and Wakanda, except the fight here is with an outsider, it’s not water people versus tree people. I’m sure Avatar will feel very different. I’m sure it won’t feel repetitive or derivative at all. It’s not like that’s been a problem for Avatar before. (ahem)
Still, it really doesn’t matter if this movie is good or not. It will make a bunch of money, at least in the beginning. And it needs to make a bunch of money, according to James Cameron, who told GQ the film needs to clear $2 billion it be profitable. Specifically, it needs to become the third or fourth highest-grossing movie in history (all of these standings are unadjusted for inflation). Cameron called the movie “the worst business case in movie history”, and wouldn’t commit to a budget number, just saying the movie is “very f-cking expensive”. (The estimated price tag is at least $250 million.)
The current third-highest grossing movie ever is Cameron’s own Titanic, with $2.2 billion. The fourth is Star Wars: The Force Awakens with $2.069 billion. So Avatar 2 has to clear at least, say, $2.1 billion to become profitable. One, that is ENTIRELY possible. Even though Avatar has a small cultural footprint and people don’t really care about these characters (yet, maybe the sequel will change that), never bet against James Cameron. The man delivers hits. Also, Avatar 2 has the holiday season to itself, there is no other blockbuster due in December, a rarity in the 2010s but a reality in the post-pandemic era. The only competition for Avatar are counter-programmed films like Babylon, A Man Called Otto, and I Wanna Dance with Somebody. These are not films anyone expects to make $100 million on opening day.
But to crush James Cameron’s “worst business case” stance, um, no, it’s not. Disney didn’t buy Fox for Avatar movies, they bought Fox for Avatar THEME PARKS. They already have an Avatar-focused attraction in Animal Kingdom, and it’s pretty popular. The merch doesn’t sell, but the rides are well attended and well received by park guests. James Cameron’s ego might need Avatar 2 to become one of the top-grossing films of all time, but Disney doesn’t need that. They’d like it, sure. But really, the movie is a loss leader for the parks (just like Marvel and Star Wars). Even if the movie “only” makes $1 billion, as long as it drives people to visit the Pandora park attraction, Disney counts it as a win.
As for whether or not Avatar 2 can actually crack the top five highest grossing movies ever, I don’t know. There is no doubt this movie will make money, it’s only a matter of how much. And so much of that has nothing to do with the movie itself. For instance, 3D drove a huge chunk of Avatar’s box office in 2009-10. But back then, 3D tickets were about $12-14. Today, they can run upwards of $20, if not more than that in the largest markets. And the economy is precarious right now, many people might not splurge for the priciest ticket, let alone do it again and again for repeat viewings, another major factor in Avatar’s success. What’s changed between then and now, besides the bursting of the 3D bubble, is how people go see movies. Repeat views are less common, the box office has flipped from long legs to big openings. Now, it’s typical for a blockbuster to open to gargantuan box office, lose 55-60% in the second week, and then play to steady but smaller numbers for the next six weeks or so before switching to home viewing.
Avatar 2 has no competition for two solid months, until the arrival of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in mid-February. But with a rough economy and a movie-going audience out of the habit of seeing a movie six times in theaters—I know some people do this, but average movie-goers do not—can Avatar 2 leg it out like Avatar did? That’s the mystery. And no one knows, we’ve never had a sequel to the biggest movie in history before. Between that and the economy and the big question of if 3D can be resurrected as a top-tier ticket draw, no one has a clue. Avatar 2 will make money, that’s all anyone knows. How much is anyone’s guess.