While the overall projected $435 million global weekend for “Avatar: The Way of Water” qualifies as a good start, the film stumbled hard in China. Despite pre-release tracking suggesting an over/under $120 million opening in the world’s second-biggest moviegoing marketplace, the 3-D action sequel earned just $57.1 million. It’s the latest example of a big Hollywood movie underwhelming in China.
Its opening day was around $24 million, essentially tied with the $24.6 million first Friday of “Aquaman” in 2018. While the James Wan-directed underwater action fantasy earned $94 million over its Friday-Sunday weekend, the James Cameron-directed underwater action fantasy barely doubled its opening day.
“Aquaman” legged out to $298 million in China (out of $1.15 billion worldwide). Even if “Avatar: The Way of Water” benefits from post-debut legs, strong word of mouth and audiences waiting until they can see it in IMAX or related PLF auditoriums — 99% of the ticket sales were for 3-D shows — it’s now unknown if the mega-budget sequel will match even the $159 million Chinese gross of Universal’s “Jurassic World Dominion.”
A strong run in much of the world for “Avatar 2” would make Chinese box office a luxury or a bonus. There was hope — due to the original “Avatar” earning $57 million in China amid an early 2021 reissue — that the film might have earned grosses on par with the biggest Hollywood exports. Even if “Avengers: Endgame” and its $629 million gross (out of $2.8 billion total) was a hyperbolic pipe dream, it wasn’t absurd to hope for earnings on par with “Avengers: Infinity War” ($356 million in 2018), “Furious 7″ ($380 million in 2015)” and “Fate of the Furious” ($390 million in 2017).
The original “Avatar” earned $203 million in China back in 2010, grossing that record-breaking figure on around 7% of the screens that are currently available. Hollywood reacted to the sky-high result by spending a decade chasing Chinese box office (setting tentpoles like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” in China, changing scripts like “World War Z” to make China look more heroic, etc.) as a supplement to its four-quadrant franchise blockbusters and to partially make up for lost DVD revenue.
China has for the last two years allowed far fewer Hollywood movies into their theaters with those films earning far less than pre-COVID expectations. For example, “Despicable Me 3” earned $153 million in 2017 but “Minions: The Rise of Gru” earned $37 million in 2022. “The Batman” earned $20 million in China this year while no Marvel films (from Disney or Sony) have played there since 2019.
While COVID restrictions and related moviegoing behavior are absolutely key factors, plenty of big Chinese tentpoles like “The Eight Hundred” ($460 million in 2020), “Hi, Mom” ($835 million in 2021) and “The Battle at Lake Changjin 2” ($610 million) have earned pre-COVID sized grosses. Concurrently, the likes of “Top Gun: Maverick” ($1.49 billion), “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($1.91 billion) and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($956 million) have earned best-case-scenario box office without China.
Whatever the reasons for the decline, if China can no longer deliver top-tier box office for Hollywood tentpoles, especially as most films return just 25% of the gross to the studios, there’s little reason for Tinseltown to aggressively court the marketplace. Fair or not, “Avatar: The Way of Water” was seen as one last chance for China to show Hollywood the money.
Meanwhile, the Sam Worthington/Zoe Saldaña sequel pulled better-than-expected grosses in India. While the $18.1 million opening was obviously 2/3 smaller than China’s $57 million launch, it was the second-biggest opening weekend ever for a Hollywood title behind “Avengers: Endgame” ($26.7 million in 2019).
That MCU “Infinity Saga” finale legged out to $62.7 million in India, which was equal to 10% of China’s total and made up 2.2% of the $2.8 billion global cume. However, if Hollywood really decides to take a sabbatical from chasing fortune and glory in China, India might be a viable target.
This may be little more than a momentary blip due to the popularity of the “Avatar” brand — it’s not like moviegoers there are turned off by over-the-top fantasy action and bleeding-heart sincerity — or it could be another “history began here” moment.