China Box Office: ‘Avatar 2’ Opens to Soft $24 Million Friday

James Cameron’s “The Way of Water” got off to a merely OK start in a key overseas marketplace

Avatar: The Way of Water 2022 Film Still
Walt Disney Studios

“Avatar: The Way of Water” earned $24 million in its first full day of release in China, including $5.2 million in preview showings and midnight showings ($2.7 million from midnight alone), individuals with knowledge tell TheWrap. Disney has not yet officially released China numbers for Friday.

It’s not just (understandably) below the first Friday for “Avengers: Endgame” ($107 million in 2019) but also just below the first Friday for “Aquaman” ($24.6 million in 2018, not accounting for exchange rates) The Jason Momoa-starring DC film nabbed a $94 million Fri-Sun debut frame and legged out to $298 million (out of $1.148 billion global in total). That remains the biggest total ever in China for a solo DC/Marvel superhero flick.

If James Cameron’s water-specific action fantasy legs like James Wan’s water-specific action fantasy, that will give “Avatar 2” a $90 million opening weekend and an over/under $285 million Chinese total. That’ll be far bigger than any Hollywood import amid the COVID-era (above the $215 million cume of “F9”) and objectively quite large under the circumstances, but arguably below hopes and expectations for the likely global smash.

The over/under $350 million-budgeted sequel arrives after two years of far fewer Hollywood movies entering the marketplace compared to before 2020, far lower grosses than Hollywood had been accustomed to (“Despicable Me 3” earned $153 million in 2017 while “Minions: The Rise of Gru” grossed $35 million in 2022) for those that did play there and a slew of high profile Hollywood hits like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “The Batman” scoring best-case-scenario global box office with little-to-no help from China.

The $203 million gross in China for the original “Avatar” in 2010 helped usher in a decade of Hollywood aiming their four-quadrant, franchise-friendly tentpoles at the Chinese marketplace. 12 years later, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is seen as one of the last chances for China to deliver the kind of sky-high box office that would justify Hollywood treating the marketplace as a proverbial favorite nation.

After a decade of arguable Tinseltown pandering, the burden of proof has now shifted to China having to prove its commercial worth to Hollywood. Not only did the original “Avatar” earn that $203 million in just 7% of the screens now currently available in China, but the film’s early 2021 re-release in China earned $57 million. That was, amusingly, enough to put it back over “Avengers: Endgame” as the biggest global grosser ever, a title it briefly lost partially due to the “Avengers” finale grossing a sky-high (and record for a Hollywood title) $629 million (out of $2.8 billion total) in China in 2019.

In more positive news, word of mouth for “Avatar: The Way of Water” is pretty solid so far, with (as of this writing) 9.3/10 on Maoyan (a key Chinese movie ticketing platform) and 8.4/10 on Douban (a popular Chinese social media network). That the grosses are lower than hoped so far is at least partially due to COVID concerns and variables (even after China lifted most of its strict “COVID Zero” policies just last week).

While that’s entirely understandable, if the grosses remain lower than hoped, it’ll be yet more evidence that (fairly or not) China can’t reliably deliver the top-tier blockbuster goods for Hollywood franchise flicks.

However, this is just one day, and James Cameron is no stranger to non-record opening weekends legging out to record-breaking final totals. If China allows the film to play theatrically for more than a month (with “The Wandering Earth 2” opening on the first day of the lunar new year, Jan. 23, 2023) and presuming paying audiences like what they see, well, the story is not yet written.

Presuming “Avatar: The Way of Water” plays good-to-great everywhere else, then how well it performs in China could just be a matter of whether it makes “most of the money” or “all the money.”