It was the weekend so many people have been waiting well over a decade to see. And those wanting to see the box office come to life in 2022 have had their eyes on December 16. Why? Because James Cameron's "Avatar: The Way of Water," the long-awaited follow-up to his 2009 sci-fi blockbuster smash (still the highest-grossing movie of all time), finally arrived. And it brought with it the burden of sky high expectations for a myriad of reasons. So, how'd it do? Well, it certainly made a great deal more than "Avatar" made on its opening weekend, but it fell short of projections that were forecast ahead of the weekend. The big question we're left with now: can Disney sell enough tickets to turn a profit? Let's dig into the numbers.

"The Way of Water" washed ashore with an estimated $134 million in its domestic opening, per Box Office Mojo. That is well below projections, which had it taking in somewhere between $150 and $175 million. The good news? It performed very well overseas, earning $300.5 million from many, many key markets, including China. All told, the sequel sits at $434.5 million mere days after its launch, ranking as one of the biggest debuts of 2022. One key thing here is that the film did gangbusters business in premium formats, such as 3D and IMAX, accounting for 62% of domestic sales. "Avatar," similarly, ate its cake by making 3D cool back in 2009/2010.

As far as 2022 is concerned, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" ($450 million) opened higher than "Way of Water," and that movie finished its run with $955.7 million. Though, rather crucially, Disney and Cameron need this movie to do even better than that as its budget is said to be as high as $460 million (before marketing!), meaning it literally has to be one of the biggest movies of all time just to see profit. So, does it have a path to profitability?

The Path To Box Office Glory

The good news for the Mouse House and Mr. Cameron is that there is virtually nothing by way of major competition until "Ant-Man and the Waps: Quantumania" arrives in February. That's not to say no movies are coming out between now and then, but as far as blockbusters go? "Avatar" has a clear path to dominate the charts for weeks, particularly through the holiday stretch coming up. While that massive runtime of more than three hours isn't helping matters, with schools letting out and two holiday weekends coming up, the chance for strong week-to-week holds is exceedingly high.

Not only that, but the sequel has done incredibly well with audiences thus far, nabbing an A CinemaScore. That suggests word of mouth will be strong. Perhaps a good comparison would be "Top Gun: Maverick." That movie — a sequel to a beloved classic arriving many years later — debuted to $126 million earlier this year, but then legged it out week after week both domestically and overseas, ultimately pulling in $1.48 billion. If "The Way of Water" can touch a similar number, it might be enough to get the movie into the green.

So yes, there is a path, but it's all going to depend on great holds and strong legs. If it suffers a big drop, Disney could be in the red here. At which point, the fates of "Avatar 4" and "Avatar 5" may be called into question. "Avatar 3" is already in the can and deep in post-production, so that's happening pretty much no matter what.

It's mentioning that the original "Avatar" ultimately earned its $2.92 billion with record breaking holds week after week. Yet, that was a very different time and, as we're seeing here, COVID is still having an impact, particularly in China where the movie debuted to $57.1 million. That's, again, below expectations. So this is going to be a long game in the global marketplace.

And The Rest…

As expected, the much-anticipated return to Pandora ate up just about all the attention at the box office over the weekend, but Universal's "Violent Night" managed to do well with $5.6 million. Good enough for second place. The David Harbour Christmas action flick has now earned $55 million worldwide against a $20 million budget, making this a nice little hit for the studio. Meanwhile, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" fell to number three after topping the charts for five weeks in a row, taking in $5.4 million. It now sits at $786.4 million worldwide and will likely top out somewhere around $800 million.

The real bummer of it all is that the bottom five movies in the top 10 all failed to clear even $1 million, with "Empire of Light" sneaking into the tenth spot with just $235,000. For as much as the box office has improved greatly in 2022, it's in those spots lower on the charts where the movie business is still feeling the effects of the pandemic. Whereas a movie like "Queen & Slim" could somehow make $43 million while never climbing higher than number four on the charts back in 2019, movies like Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans" are going to struggle to clear $10 million domestically. One can only hope the situation in that regard improves in 2023 and beyond.

Looking ahead, the animated "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish," the Oscar hopeful "Babylon," and the Whitney Houston "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" look to get in on the Christmas weekend goods. None of them will compete for the crown, but can they still find an audience?

Top ten movies at the box office December 16 – 18, 2022

  1. "Avatar: The Way of Water" – $134 million

  2. "Violent Night" – $5.6 million

  3. "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" – $5.4 million

  4. "Strange World" – $2.2 million

  5. "The Menu" – $1.7 million

  6. "Devotion" – $825,000

  7. "The Fabelmans" – $750,00

  8. "Black Adam" – $500,000

  9. "I Heard the Bells" – $309,000

  10. "Empire of Light" – $235,000

Read this next: Everything You Need To Remember About Avatar

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