James Cameron’s Avatar was a big deal when it was released. It had positive reviews, a marketing campaign that pushed a 3D theatrical experience and came off the back of the (at the time) highest-grossing film, Cameron’s previous effort, Titanic. Premiering in London on 10th December 2009, and breaking several box office records in its opening weekend alone, it eventually became the highest-grossing film of all time. A title held for almost a decade, when it was briefly overtaken by Avengers: Endgame. In 2021, it reclaimed its crown, and a re-release last year widened the gap, earning a cool $30 million and reaching the top spot for the weekend. As well as being the biggest film of all time, it was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and winning three, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.
With all that in mind, it seems like a sequel would be a slam dunk for success. But 13 years on, the landscape is very different. Cinemas are still struggling to recover from the effects of Covid, and there was much less competition back then. Cameron has gone on record saying it needs to gross around $2 Billion to break even, but can it? And can he go one further and beat his own record?
A Whole New World
The first Avatar film was released in 2009. At the time, the MCU was still in its infancy, with The Avengers still a few years away. Shared universes weren’t even a thing at the time, with every studio looking to cash in on Harry Potter‘s success and find their own YA novel series to adapt. Transformers and the Fast and Furious franchises were two of the biggest films that year, while Star Trek rebooted itself for the next generation.
Thirteen years on, the MCU is one of the most successful film franchises ever, and recently announced a slate going into 2026. Every studio is trying to make a shared universe, the Wizarding World, as it is now known, has stalled three films into a planned five series, with the author now a very controversial figure. Not to mention several other franchises that have spawned in the years since.
Audiences also may be suffering from franchise fatigue, with many newer ones dominating the box office, along with original films. The rise of streaming services, something that has exploded in popularity in recent years, has also contributed. Even Star Wars has mainly moved to streaming after the mixed reception to the sequel trilogy and Solo being considered a disappointment. The pandemic has made streaming more powerful than ever, with many films getting a smaller theatrical window or none – whilst appearing on on-demand services much quicker.
Return To Pandora
At the time of writing, Avatar: The Way of Water is around the $1.7 Billion mark. After being in theatres for less than a month. Coming out towards the end of December, it not only had the Christmas season to take advantage of but also January, which traditionally is a quiet month for cinemas, as there are few new releases (in the UK, there are often awards contenders that we have yet to receive). Barring any unexpected hits, Avatar is still poised to be the big film for the first few months. Perhaps the best, recent film to compare it to is Top Gun: Maverick. A sequel coming years after the original, making use of its now much older star and advanced technology. It became the second highest-grossing of the year and the highest-grossing of Tom Cruise’s career.
Like Maverick, word of mouth and curiosity will work in Avatar‘s favour. Some audiences will turn up because there is nothing else on and also to see what Cameron has been up to all these years. Good reviews will also convince people that may have been on the fence about the film before now. Box Office numbers are often a marathon, rather than a sprint. While Avengers: Endgame Hulk-Smashed its way to the top spot fairly quickly, it was the culmination of ten years worth of films, and followed up on a huge cliffhanger, with many fans seeing it early to avoid spoilers. By contrast, The Way of Water is much more accessible, as it is set many years after the original, and focuses on new characters.
Can Cameron Do It?
Absolutely. Despite its perceived lack of “cultural impact” Avatar has remained the biggest film for close to a decade. Its brief time being dethroned was the result of ten years and over twenty films leading into it. With only five films grossing over $2 billion ever, The Way of Water is well on track to join the ranks. Depending on how long it is until there is some serious competition, it could even beat the original film. The only film that looks to be a threat is a re-release of Cameron’s own Titanic.