Box office: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ washes over movie theaters with $134 million opening

This past weekend was essentially all “Avatar: The Way of Water” all the time, as James Cameron’s sequel to the 2009 global blockbuster burst into over 4,202 theaters on Friday after making $17 million in Thursday previews that began at 3pm.

“The Way of Water” came into the weekend with a relatively decent 78% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes from reviews but it achieved an even better 94% from audiences, who also gave it an  “A” rating on audience poll site, CinemaScore.

Its Friday opening of $53 million (including those Thursday numbers) may have been a bit lower than expected, but the movie still brought in an estimated $134 million for the weekend, which is on par with Warner Bros’ “The Batman” back in March. That superhero reboot went onto gross $369.3 million domestically and $770.8 worldwide, though “The Way of Water” should benefit from the upcoming winter holidays where many North Americans are either off from work or school or both. “The Way of Water” also opened slightly less than double what the original “Avatar” opened to in this same weekend in 2009.

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Overseas, the “Avatar” sequel did even better, bringing in $300.5 million to make its global opening $434.5 million, although some regions like China didn’t fare nearly as well as expected. Even so, China’s $57.1 million was more than any other region individually. IMAX is claiming $48.8 million globally for the weekend, more than 10% of the movie’s box office coming from those large format screens.

There were other movies in theaters this weekend, but even Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which held the #1 spot for five weekends, couldn’t hold its ground against the latest James Cameron blockbuster, dropping 52% to second place with $5.4 million. After six weeks, it has grossed $419 million domestically, making it the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It’s about $300 million behind “Top Gun: Maverick,” which is likely to remain the biggest domestic grosser for 2022. Globally, “Black Panther” has grossed $786.5 million.

Universal’s holiday action-comedy “Violent Night” dropped to third place with $5 million, down 43% from its previous weekend with $34.3 million grossed so far.

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Fourth place went to Disney’s “Strange World” with $2.2 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its one-month total to $33.8 million, which has to be one of Disney’s bigger disappointments in the past decade. It’s also one that can’t be blamed solely on COVID or on anything besides bad marketing that failed to generate interest among family audiences who have gotten used to watching stuff on Disney+.

The other dark comedy in theaters, Searchlight’s “The Menu,” took fifth place with $1.7 million, down 39% from last weekend with $32.1 million so far.

Sony’s fighter pilot drama, “Devotion,” took a massive plunge in its fourth weekend, dropping 58% to sixth place with $825,000 and a pitiful $18.7 million while still retaining onto a place in the top ten. 

Steven Spielberg’s well-reviewed drama “The Fabelmans” held up better than most of the other movies in the Top 10, despite being released on demand earlier in the week. Spielberg’s latest took a 36% drop to $750,000, remaining in seventh place, having grossed $8.7 million so far. For those keeping score, that’s Spielberg’s worst showing for a movie going all the way back to his 1974 directorial debut, “The Sugarland Express,” which only made $7 million, although it could theoretically pick up some steam with any awards nominations in January.

Ahead of its wider expansion on Wednesday, Darren Aranofsky’s “The Whale” remained in the same six theaters in New York and L.A. in which it opened last weekend, but it took a 53% drop to $170,000, with $600,000 grossed before its wider release this coming Wednesday.

Searchlight Studios expanded Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” into 436 theaters in its second weekend, but it didn’t do much better, a paltry $77,000 jump to $240,000 or $539 per theater. Searchlight plans to expand the movie into even more theaters for next weekend’s Christmas holiday, but it’s hard to imagine the drama is going to be able to build on such a horrible opening and even worse reviews.

The majority of players in the box office prediction game correctly presumed that “The Way of Water” would be #1, but the majority also predicted it would open over $150 million, which was not to be. The rest of the players mostly got the other four placements right with a few wavering on whether “Strange World” could hold off “The Menu” once again.

36 players went 6 for 6 on the December 9 box office game, but special kudos to “MonStar” and “Max,” who scored over 53,000 points each by correctly predicting “Strange World” to take third place and making that one of their “Big Bets.”

There are three new wide releases this coming Christmas weekend: DreamWorks Animation’s sequel, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (the Whitney Houston biopic), and Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” as well as a few other movies expanding and some last-minute limited releases for Oscar qualification. Check back on Tuesday for the full weekend preview.

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