Can ‘Avatar’ Save The Box Office Twice In One Year?

In a kind of skewed contradiction that makes this business occasionally bemusing, Shazam: Fury of the Gods was delayed from December 21, 2022 until March 17, 2023 at least partially to get away from Avatar: The Way of Water, which is opening on December 16, 2022. Whether it’s the call I would have made (history shows that there’s room for more than one tentpole over the holidays), it’s up to Avatar: The Way of Water, with a little help from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, to keep theaters alive and well over what’s usually a lucrative theatrical holiday season. Moreover, thanks to a distributor-driven famine in new ‘big’ theatrical releases, the potential savior of the post-summer season may be… the 3-D, 4K, HFR-enhanced rerelease of James Cameron’s Avatar.

Disney was always going to rerelease the first Avatar theatrically in the run-up to the sequel. This is why Avengers: Endgame’s global box office triumph was always a temporary (if no less impressive) milestone. The film plays fine at home (it kicks ass in 2-D on my 75” Samsung 4K television) and since I caught the third act during a flight back from Ohio in the summer of 2015, I can attest that Avatar rocks on a plane and on a train, and presumably in a box or with a fox. But it was something special on a giant IMAX 3-D screen in December of 2009. Reminding people of that singular experience was the best way to remind them why they should be excited about another go-around. So, yes, the only question was when it would return.

The film returned to China in early 2021 to help test the waters for Hollywood exports. It grossed $57 million, more than most Hollywood releases in 2020-2022 and enough to get past Avengers 4 ahead of schedule. That massive gross in China suggests a strong interest in the property. Avatar earned a then-record $205 million in 2010 playing in 10% of the theaters that would eventually be available to Avengers: Endgame. That Avengers flick earned $620 million in 2019, a 71% jump from Avengers: Infinity War (the bump was closer to 27% everywhere else), and if Avatar 2 plays in China somewhere between Avengers 3 (or Fate of the Furious) and Avengers 4 (or The Battle at Lake Changjin 2), that will offset quite a bit of drop-off elsewhere. But I digress.

With almost nothing ‘big’ opening between Bullet Train and Avatar on September 23, the theatrical reissue of the 13-year-old blockbuster may end up becoming, by default, the second-biggest film of the Fall season behind Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam. I’m hoping Viola Davis’ The Woman King breaks out on September 16, that Halloween Ends takes a drop from Halloween Kills’ $92 million domestic gross more like Fifty Shades Freed than Maze Runner: The Death Cure. I certainly hope Don’t Worry Darling grosses closer to The Girl on the Train ($73 million in 2016) than A Simple Favor ($53 million in 2018), although both would probably be okay for the Olivia Wilde-directed original. Nor can we assume Ticket to Paradise will earn much more than George Clooney and Julia Roberts’ Money Monster ($41 million in 2016).

In terms of global theatrical potential, even a halfway decent showing (Titanic 3-D earned a ridiculous $350 million in 2012) for Avatar could tower over the competition. No, that’s not a prediction. Even if Avatar did rule the post-summer season, that would be okay (The Lion King 3-D was tops in September 2011 with $94 million domestic) if everything else met expectations and financial requirements. Nonetheless, after years of “nobody cares about or wants an Avatar sequel” chatter, the Avatar IP will be partially responsible (alongside Black Adam in October and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November) for saving movie theaters twice in the last four months of the year. Of course, I didn’t think anyone wanted a Top Gun sequel either, but I digress.