After 13 years of waiting, audiences are finally able to see what all the fuss surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water is about. The big-budget film hit theaters globally on Dec. 16, and with its gigantic price tag, it has to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time to break even and justify its hefty budget for the many sequels slated to follow.
There’s certainly a fair share of critics whose reviews were not exactly glowing when the embargo lifted earlier this week. “The plot of The Way of Water is designed to seem engagingly complex, but there’s nothing about it that’s truly surprising or particularly moving,” TIME critic Stephanie Zacharek writes, “even though Cameron heaps the faux-spiritual mumbo-jumbo high and tugs valiantly at the waterworks levers.” The Daily Beast critic Nick Schager had similar feelings, writing that the movie felt “forced and without a single memorable vision.”
But if its current rating of 80% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, a majority ultimately did enjoy the sequel for the visual spectacle that it is. “Cameron has raised not only the stakes of his effects artistry but the choreographic flow of his staging, to the point of making The Way of Water, like Avatar, into the apotheosis of a must-see movie,” Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review.
This movie’s opening weekend performance offers some insight into its box office momentum as it fights to justify its enormous budget. In its first weekend, Avatar: The Way of Water made $134 million in North America alone and $435 million globally, Variety reports. While those numbers seem impressive, they come in a bit south of two recent Marvel blockbusters, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which opened with a global total of $442 million, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, which grossed $600 million globally on its opening weekend. While we wait to find out, here’s everything we know about the cost of the movie and how it needs to perform to recoup its budget.
Read More: Avatar: The Way of Water Will Shape The Moviegoing Experience—Maybe Not for the Better
How much did Avatar: The Way of Water cost?
There is no publicly available, definitive answer as to the exact dollar amount, but overall, the film is reported to have cost Disney $350 million, according to Variety. Even with that big of a price tag, it’s still not the most expensive movie ever made; that title belongs to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which cost $379 million. Second place goes to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which rang in at $365 million, and third belongs to Avengers: Endgame, costing Marvel (well, Disney) $356 million.
There are a multitude of reasons why it cost so much money and took so much time to make the second Avatar movie. The beauty of the film was made possible by the “advanced motion-capture technology that Cameron used to reproduce every fluid movement and facial tic of his actors playing Na’vi characters,” TIME’s Eliana Dockterman writes. “For the sequels, Cameron wanted to use the same motion capture tech for actors while they were submerged underwater, an unheard-of feat that required years to engineer a solution.” Cameron also decided to film the second and third movies together, which took three years to complete. This, on top of the time it took for post-production, all adds up to the 13-year wait.
How much is Avatar 2 projected to make?
Early projections for the opening weekend’s box office are showing that people are eager to return to Pandora after more than a decade away. According to Variety, the movie is projected to open to $150 million to $175 million across 4,100 theaters domestically, and Disney reported that the movie had already amassed $38 million in advance ticket sales. That puts it ahead of early projections for Top Gun: Maverick, which currently ranks as the most successful movie this year. Avatar: The Way of Water needs to make $1.49 billion to clinch the top spot for 2022, and it would need to gross somewhere between $2.08 billion and $2.05 billion to break even.
When the first Avatar opened in 2009, it made $77 million domestically and $2.92 billion worldwide after staying at the No. 1 movie spot for seven consecutive weeks. It ultimately became the highest-grossing movie of all time. The sequel is in a good position to make a solid chunk of its money back. “Internationally, Avatar 2 could add at least $250 million to $350 million over the weekend, which would put global ticket sales at $400 million to $500 million,” Variety reports. It also got the green light to premiere in China, which is never a given for Hollywood movies given the criteria they need to meet to be released there, and on the conservative side, Variety estimates that “initial returns [from Chinese cinemas] could reach $100 million by Sunday” in addition to the $22 million in advance sales.
Read More: What to Remember About Avatar Before Watching Avatar: The Way of Water
How does the box office affect any planned sequels?
During an interview with Total Film, Cameron said that the franchise will end with Avatar 3 if the second one underperforms at the box office. “The market could be telling us we’re done in three months, or we might be semi-done, meaning: ‘OK, let’s complete the story within movie three, and not go on endlessly’ if it’s just not profitable,” Cameron said. These movies are, in his own words, “Very f-cking [expensive]”—the reported combined budget for the next three movies is a whopping $1 billion, with plans for as many as six or seven movies if there is demand for them. The next movie is planned for 2024, Avatar 4 is slated to be released in 2026, and Avatar 5 is set to be released in 2028.
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