Disney and 20th Century’s Avatar: The Way of Water opened in China over the weekend to $57.1 million, a starting haul that would be considered a heroic comeback for Hollywood in the increasingly choppy China market — if it were made by any filmmaker other than James Cameron.
Presale rates and other online measures of audience interest had suggested Avatar 2 would open in China with well over $100 million. But a growing COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing and other major cities appears to have dampened consumer activity and scrambled all precedents. Analysts now believe the film’s performance will be characterized by a long ebb and flow of earnings rather than a tsunami.
“China’s theatrical industry continues to labor under the impact of COVID, with significant impact to original estimates,” says Rance Pow, CEO of regional box-office consultancy Artisan Gateway. “This includes what may be a reluctance of people to return in force to public spaces, including cinemas — ironically, as COVID policies become more adaptable to local conditions. If so, Avatar 2‘s long runtime may work against it. However, the film is sporting excellent social media scores, James Cameron has an immense fan base in China, and his films have an established performance record of legging out well.”
On Friday, leading Chinese ticking app Maoyan was projecting Avatar 2 would earn $360 million (RMB 2.51 billion). Forecasters had good reason to be bullish: Shortly before Friday, The Way of Water exceeded the presales total achieved by Chinese blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin 2, which earned more than $100 million on its first day in February and ultimately topped out at $626 million. But by Sunday, Maoyan’s full-run forecast for Avatar 2 had been slashed to $143 million (RMB 1 billion), reflecting how unreliable the usual indicators had become amid the uncertainty of public health conditions.
Nonetheless, The Way of Water has been wildly well received by the Chinese viewers who have seen it so far. The film sports sky-high social scores of 9.3 on Maoyan, 9.2 on Alibaba’s ticketing app Tao Piao Piao and 8.2 on movie site Douban.
The film’s fate now comes down to how consumer behavior evolves over the coming weeks as the Chinese public copes with their first experience of widespread COVID infection as an everyday fact of life. Avatar 2 will have a largely unfettered run at Chinese cinemas until the Lunar New Year holiday, beginning Jan. 22, when the sequel to local sci-fi hit Wandering Earth will debut.