“Avatar: The Way of Water” (Disney) opens December 15. But even if James Cameron’s much-hyped sequel immediately exceeds its highest expectations… there is no chance that the U.S./Canada 2022 box office can reach even low-end hopes of an $8 billion cumulative total.
Still, an opening similar to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” on the same weekend last year ($260 million debut and $573 million by December 31), would be terrific for the feature and its director. No guarantee that will happen, of course, but it’s never smart to bet against Cameron.
Whatever happens will represent improvement over a disappointing November. We held out hope that the month might reach a best-case $800 million; it managed $630 million. That’s 66 percent of November 2019 pre-COVID, when ticket prices were 20 percent lower.
December 2019 came to $1.15 billion; if this month performed with the same percentage drop compared to 2019 as November, we’d look for $757 million. However, $900 million is a reasonable hope and that would bring 2022 to $7.6 million. That falls well short of hopes for doubling the 2021 total of $4.4 billion, which AMC CEO Adam Aron anticipated earlier this year.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody”
Five new wide releases is a low number, but December is never a great month for volume. The first two or three weeks are notorious dead zones and although Christmas is great for attendance, it can also post a major risk for a film. Typically, no distributor releases more than one film for the holidays. With six top studios these days, and Warner Bros. Discovery and Lionsgate skipping the month altogether, there’s four other major films beyond “The Way of Water”: Universal’s “Violent Night” this week, Universal’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish on December 21, Paramount’s “Babylon” and Sony’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” on December 23.
The range for “Avatar” remains very wide. Tickets are on sale (for IMAX 3D evening screenings, most tickets are above $20; in some major-city locations, close to $30). Tracking three weeks out suggested a $150 million-$170 million opening weekend, considerably below “No Way Home” results.
“Avatar” faces a key disadvantage since go-to premium formats could limit initial availability and IMAX screens will be even more limited. (It remains to be seen how many viewers will choose 2D showings.) On the other hand, the amount of patrons opting for higher-priced shows could be a significant boost.
Among the unknowns that will factor into the film’s success: It’s the sequel to a 13-year-old film; it features a major technical element that can’t be replicated in most homes; and it falls outside the comic book world. Then again, the sequel to a 36-year-old film, “Top Gun: Maverick,” is the year’s biggest performer at $717 million. “No Way Home” ended up with $805 million. “Wakanda” will end up around $500 million.
“Puss in Boots,” like “Sing 2” last year, will likely be the month’s distant #2. Damian Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a risky bet as a wide release, while “Violent Night” could perform well this weekend. Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance” remains a big question mark.
Their performances are crucial if December will have a strong finish, but like most of this year the heavy lifting falls on one blockbuster. Even if “Avatar” smashes records, putting the weight on just one film is not the long term solution the box office requires. James Cameron, your move.
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