Avatar: The Way Of Water, and the lessons of its box office success

Still of an aquatic creature in Avatar: The Way Of Water.
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Avatar: The Way Of Water wins the $2bn gamble that James Cameron effectively set for it – and there are lessons for blockbuster cinema to learn.


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Remember last year when filmmaker James Cameron gave an interview suggesting that his then-incoming Avatar sequel had to scale $2bn at the global box office, simply to break even? Add that to the pile of opinion pieces questioning whether anybody evencared about Avatar and its world anymore, and there must have been more than a few people out there thinking if the film got to half a billion dollars – let alone $2bn – it’d be a result.

Well, you know what happened next.

As things stand, the film is nearly at that $2bn bar that was set already, after just a month of release. Chances are, it’ll have passed it just as this article goes live. Off the back of its theatrical release alone, the film will go into the green, and give Disney a piece of good news just at the point it could probably use it given its troubled 2022.

Lesson number one from Avatar 2 has thus come across loud and clear from its success: never bet against James Cameron. You’d think everyone would have learned.

Whilst Avatar: The Way Of Water probably won’t topple the total of the original and thus make it the third time in his career that Cameron made the biggest movie of all time at the box office, nobody is doubting now that he won his gamble. Nor that he’ll make the other films in this particular saga he has planned.

On the downside, he sidelined directing all other projects – including his long-cherished Alita: Battle Angel film, that he handed off to Robert Rodriguez – to commit to what looks like four further Avatars, at a point where it was far from clear the public appetite for the movies was there. Yet here we are: he figured if he put another long shit-ton of spectacle on the big screen, we might all turn up and watch it.

Bluntly, we have.

Just once in his career has Cameron failed to drag audiences to one of his bigger swings, 1989’s The Abyss. But even that made a profit (contrary to the reporting around the time), and in 2023, we’re finally going to see it get the 4K master that fans of the films have long been crying out for. Oh, and Titanic will be back in cinemas and getting a 4K release too.

But there might just be broader lessens that the cinema industry can take from Avatar’s success as well.

James Cameron directing Avatar - The Way Of Water

James Cameron directing Avatar – The Way Of Water

The obvious one for studios is the need and demand to go big when they have a blockbuster to sell. 2022’s box office takings around the globe were on the disappointing side, and the blame was left at the feet of major studios holding off with big blockbuster releases. Last year too, in probably the most-reported movie news story of 2022, Warner Bros Discovery got to the point of cancelling outright two pretty much finished feature films rather than release them. Disney didn’t had that option with Avatar and thus threw every fibre of its marketing muscle at the film. Again, it worked. Go big or go home, as the cliche goes.

That said, it worked too because of sensible programming. It’s going to take some time for us to get back to the ways of a blockbuster movie a week we were getting pre-pandemic, but – after 2022 showed how one massive success can sweep away anything in its path (look at how Spiderman: No Way Home firmly trounced The King’s Man) – other studios simply gave James Cameron a wide berth.

Spacing big films out a little better is arguably to the benefit of movies large and small, although there’s a fascinating blockbuster clash currently due this summer. On the same date, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film is set to do battle with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, and I genuinely can’t call it. It’s either the most inspired piece of counterprogramming in years, or absolute folly. As things stand, neither of them are blinking, although not unreasonably the respective studios might figure there’s not too much overlap between the pair. But still, Avatar shows what a clear run can do.

Top Gun Maverick

Top Gun Maverick

The other lesson that Avatar: The Way Of Water will hopefully have gleamed from Top Gun: Maverick is to commit to a proper run in cinemas. Here’s where Disney’s corporate aims diversify from James Cameron’s desire to support cinema. Disney is all in on its Disney+ platform, and there’s roughly three and a half months at best between a film arriving in cinemas and it landing on the streaming service.

Yet look at Top Gun: Maverick, which is now burning up the Paramount+ service. Paramount held its nerve there and the film played pretty much non-stop, holding off home formats releases. If anything, it made a big film even bigger, and the signs are thus far that Disney is planning to follow a similar path.

Mind you, if there’s another lesson to take from the success of the new Avatar it’s that it might not be an idea to bank on another wave of 3D. That’s not saying that the 3D takings haven’t been impressive, just that they’re unlikely to spur the same kind of land rush that greeted the 3D numbers for the original Avatar. Certainly, the pushback against high frame rate screenings suggests that HFR may stay very much in its niche too.

Yet going full circle, it’s still a case of the Cameron factor, and backing a filmmaker.

Already, given the mixed response to The Way Of Water – I wasn’t impressed, but the audience at my local Odeon applauded it at the end – the spotlight moves to 2024’s Avatar 3, that I truly hope keeps its rumoured title of The Seed Bearer (please lord, give us that one). Can Cameron lure in an audience in such numbers to a third film in this particular saga? Well, by this stage, who’s actively betting against him? Not me, no matter how sanguine I feel about him dedicating the rest of his film directing days to this particular franchise.

That’s for the future, though.

What’s clear from right here right now is that Cameron’s latest film has shown that if you build it, and really go for it, it’s not only a case that people will come, but they’ll come in very large numbers. It’s been a shot in the arm for Hollywood at a point that multiplexes in particular have needed it. Whether the rest of town will follow its path remains to be seen…

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