Director James Cameron has been clear about the stakes for his long-delayed sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The science-fiction epic is so expensive, he says, it represents “the worst business case in movie history,” meaning it needs to become one of the three or four top-grossing movies of all time just to break even.

By that metric, “The Way of Water” needs to clear $2 billion to justify its price tag and please Disney, which holds the rights to “Avatar” after acquiring 20th Century Fox in 2019. The studio spent a jaw-dropping $350 million to produce and even more to market the grand return to Pandora, making it one of the costliest tentpoles ever.

Only five movies in history — 2009’s “Avatar” ($2.9 billion globally), “Avengers: Endgame” ($2.7 billion), “Titanic” ($2.1 billion), “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($2.07 billion) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($2.05 billion) — have surpassed the $2 billion mark, and those were in the best of conditions. In pandemic times, it’ll be that much harder. Even as a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time, does “The Way of Water” have what it takes to become the sixth?

“Avatar: The Way of Water” debuted to $134 million in North America and $435 million globally over the weekend, a solid start despite falling short of expectations. It stands as the third-biggest global opening weekend since the pandemic, following “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($442 million globally) and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($600 million globally). Yet only one of those films, the Spidey adventure, managed to reach the billion-dollar mark with $1.9 billion worldwide. Even with its towering debut and impressive legs at the box office, “No Way Home” couldn’t conquer the elusive $2 billion club. And just two others in COVID times, “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” had enough staying power to hit $1 billion.

“James Cameron is setting the bar so high for himself,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst, who believes Hollywood has gotten overly accustomed to Marvel-sized opening weekends. Unlike those superhero adventures, which often start strong (usually to the tune of $180 million to $200 million) and fall sharply in its second weekend, “Avatar” doesn’t have the kind of spoiler warnings that demand it’s seen as soon as possible. Yes, industry experts were expecting “The Way of Water” to make more to start. But Dergarabedian says that focusing on the film’s domestic debut “misses the point of Cameron’s entire career. It’s never been about opening weekend for him.”

To his point, Cameron’s biggest films, “Avatar” and “Titanic,” started slower at the box office and built huge audiences over time. The first “Avatar” opened with a decent but hardly dazzling $77 million domestically more than a decade ago. But thanks to pricey 3D tickets and repeat viewings, the film managed to draw crowds for months, eventually climbing to $760 million in North America and more than $2 billion internationally. “Titanic,” too, didn’t notch records with its $28 million debut in 1997. But the romantic disaster story had unparalleled staying power, becoming the first movie to ever cross $1 billion. Cameron tends to play the long game at the box office.

With “Avatar 2” as well, it’ll be hard to assess its potential until after its playing in theaters for a few weeks. However, “The Way of Water” is debuting in a vastly different movie theater landscape, one that has been battered by the pandemic. Audiences have remained selective, and even worse, COVID has diminished the hugely important overseas box office. Box office experts feel confident the sequel is primed to at least pass the $1 billion mark, though the hope is the final tally is closer to $1.5 billion or more.

“The film’s second weekend gross will give a strong indication of what’s to come,” says Dergarabedian. “The third, fourth, fifth weekend will be key.”

Even with strong legs, it’s unlikely “The Way of Water” is going to replicate the pattern of its predecessor, which ended its run with nearly 10 times its opening weekend haul. Industry insiders believe the follow-up is primed to earn four times its opening weekend sales, which would put domestic returns at roughly $536 million. Of course, the final tally could be higher or lower, depending on repeat business and word-of-mouth.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” has been well reviewed, but it’s hardly received the rapturous you-gotta-see-it notices that propelled the original to become a sensation. Some ticket buyers have been waiting 13 long and hard years to return to Pandora, and others may feel a cultural obligation to catch up with the Na’vi given the pedigree of the first film. But it needs the average moviegoer, the ones who may not have gone to theaters to see “Top Gun: Maverick” without the inescapable hype, to feel like “The Way of Water” needs to be seen the big screen.

Timing looks like it’ll be in the film’s favor. There’s almost zero competition through the rest of the year, and the upcoming Christmas season is usually the busiest time to go to the multiplex. Analysts expect the movie to put up big numbers during the week. And like the original, revenues for “Avatar 2” will be goosed by pricier Imax and 3D tickets.

“The movie is set up for a very strong run through the holidays,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. 

However, the film faces several major obstacles, including its three-hours and 12-minute runtime. Will moviegoers have the stamina to return for three, four, even five viewings? Moreover, it won’t be playing in Russia, where the original film grossed $116 million, and though Chinese cinemas have access to the film, the country’s box office has been struggling to rebound. In its first weekend, “Avatar 2” grossed $57.1 million in China, falling far short of projections. The international box office will be make or break in the film’s quest to reach $2 billion.

Cameron needs “The Way of Water” to work because it’s the first of three planned follow-ups in the sprawling futuristic series. But it’ll take time to determine whether audiences want to keep coming back to Pandora.

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