‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Climbs Box-Office Ranks With Help From Chinese Audiences
Walt Disney Co.
’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” has become the highest-earning movie of the pandemic era, helped in part by its popularity in China, an encouraging sign for film studios this year.
The epic science-fiction sequel has sold $2.074 billion in tickets worldwide through Friday, making it the fourth-highest-grossing movie in history. Nearly three-quarters of that total have come from overseas markets, led by China, with $235.4 million in ticket sales, Disney said.
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The film’s success in China comes as the country is reopening following Covid-related lockdowns. Hollywood studios in recent years have had an uneasy relationship with China, where government censors decide which titles can be shown at local cinemas, decisions that can make or break billions of dollars in annual revenue. Disney’s Marvel Studios, for example, hasn’t shown any of its marquee superhero movies in China since 2019, although there have been recent signs of a thaw.
This week, the “Avatar” sequel surpassed 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII)” at the box office.
The milestones occurred during a key week for the international box office. Tens of millions of Chinese workers were on vacation for a full week to celebrate the Lunar New Year, a period in which many in China head to the movies, giving “Avatar: The Way of Water” a chance to pad its global total and climb the list of all-time highest grosses.
Seven of the top 10 spots on BoxOfficeMojo’s list of highest-grossing movies ever are now held by films made by Disney-owned studios, chiefly Marvel, Lucasfilm Ltd. (maker of the Star Wars franchise) and 20th Century Studios, which produced the “Avatar” sequel. Two others in the Top 10, “Titanic” and the original “Avatar” from 2009, are now owned by Disney after its 2019 purchase of 21st Century Fox’s movie studio.
Chinese government censors typically use the Lunar New Year holiday as an opportunity to premiere state-sanctioned films made by Chinese studios in the hopes of drawing large crowds. This year, “Avatar: The Way of Water” faced stiff competition from six Chinese-made movies that opened Jan. 22, including sci-fi sequel “The Wandering Earth 2,” which earned nearly $70 million globally on its first day, according to box-office tracker Comscore.
The six movies, led by “Full River Red,” a comedic murder mystery set during China’s medieval-era Southern Song Dynasty, have grossed a combined $1.1 billion in just seven days, according to Beijing-based film-research company EntGroup. “Full River Red” has grossed $432 million so far, followed by “The Wandering Earth 2” at $354 million.
“Boonie Bears: Guardian Code,” the ninth feature film in one of China’s most popular animated franchises, featuring Briar and Bramble, two bears who defend their forest from loggers, has generated $125 million in ticket sales since opening Jan. 22. “Hidden Blade,” a World War II spy thriller, has grossed $81 million, 3D-animated title “Deep Sea” $61 million and comedy-fantasy “Five Hundred Miles” $45 million, EntGroup said.
Comscore’s senior media analyst, said that the robust results for Chinese-made movies bode well for the Chinese box office this year, but also indicate that the “Avatar” sequel’s strong run in China is probably nearing its end.
“This week will likely see the local titles take over in terms of overall box office,” he said. Mr. Dergarabedian, however, expects China’s box office to have a strong recovery, in part because authorities there have recently given approval to release several Hollywood blockbusters, including the “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which was approved in November.
Censors have said that two of Marvel’s superhero titles, the upcoming “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and the already-released “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” will get a showing in China starting next month. The government has also approved “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” from
Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.’s
DC Studios, another sign that authorities there may be once again warming to foreign blockbusters.
“The opening up of screens to more U.S.-based content will lead to much stronger potential box-office revenue growth in China in 2023,” Mr. Dergarabedian said.
In 2021, China’s total box-office revenue for the first time surpassed the North American total with $6.065 billion (compared with $4.482 billion in the U.S. and Canada), becoming the world’s biggest film market, but ticket sales plummeted in 2022 amid a surge in new Covid-19 infections and China’s strict lockdown policies. Ticket sales fell 84% to $957 million in the country last year, according to BoxOfficeMojo.
Disney was counting on big numbers out of China to buoy ticket sales for its Avatar franchise, which it acquired as part of its $71.3 billion deal for the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox in 2019. The first Avatar movie from 2009, which tells the story of a blue-skinned race of beings called the Na’vi who defend their home moon of Pandora from rapacious earthlings, grossed $259 million in China and went on to earn more than $2.9 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Disney executives and theater-chain owners had lofty hopes for the sequel, because China’s film exhibition industry—in particular the number of 3D-capable screens like those run by
—has grown exponentially in the past decade. Chinese consumers have seen their disposable incomes expand dramatically as well. When the first Avatar film was released, there were just 14 IMAX screens in China. Today, there are more than 800.
But China’s strict Covid-19 lockdown policies kept many potential Chinese moviegoers at home during the early weeks of the second Avatar movie’s theatrical run, crimping its box-office haul. The film has grossed $235.4 million in China since it opened more than six weeks ago. It earned $5.6 million in Chinese theaters last weekend, Disney said, and $6.6 million since then, according to EntGroup.
Write to Robbie Whelan at [email protected]
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