The Na’vi return to the big screen this weekend as Disney looks to reignite interest in its newly acquired Avatar franchise, three months before the debut of the long-delayed sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
Bringing the highest-grossing film of all time back to theaters has two purposes for Disney: drum up excitement for “The Way of Water” and fill a vacant spot on the theatrical calendar. The sequel is one of four due over the next decade.
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The rerelease of the original film is a sort of litmus test for whether audiences still want to visit its eco-conscious science fiction world.
“Many questions have been asked about the film’s pop culture legacy over the past decade, but we also have to remember that James Cameron has been doubted before and proven many wrong,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
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Directed by Cameron, the mastermind behind “Titanic” and “The Terminator,” “Avatar” opened in late 2009 to wide acclaim and massive financial success, eventually earning nine Oscar nominations. But it never captured the cultural relevance that Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe – both also owned by Disney – have enjoyed. Toy sales fizzled and cosplayers donning heavy blue makeup at pop culture fan conventions have become few and far between.
“Naturally all eyes will be on the box office performance this weekend, as this may serve as an indicator of audience interest in the December release of ‘The Way of Water,'” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
“Avatar” captivated audiences more than a decade ago, in part because of the technology that Cameron helped develop to film and animate the movie. The film was shot using the Fusion Camera System, which was created by Cameron and cinematographer Vince Pace. Academy Award-nominated films like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” also utilized this camera system.
Previous systems used two cameras because filmmakers had determined that the human brain processed different information from different sides of the brain. So, one part of the brain would process the image’s movement, while the other would process what was happening in the image.
Cameron and Pace devised a camera that could capture images the same way that a human eye does. The results were breathtaking — just look at the ticket sales.
During its initial run, “Avatar” snared $2.78 billion globally. It added additional ticket sales throughout the years through rereleases, and reclaimed the box-office crown from “Avengers: Endgame” in 2021 when it was redistributed in China, topping $2.84 billion.
The majority of tickets sold for the film were for 3D showings, which tend to be more expensive than regular tickets. These premium tickets alongside, an extended nine-month run in theaters, helped bolster “Avatar’s” total box-office haul.
“We know that IMAX and other [premium format] screens are a major driver for the business now and going forward, but 3D’s popularity in North America waned quickly in the years after the first ‘Avatar’s’ original release,” Robbins said. “With very rare exceptions, 3D simply began to turn off many moviegoers for a variety of reasons — some of which filmmakers can control, but not all.”
This “3D gold rush” in the wake of “Avatar,” as Dergarabedian calls it, led to an oversaturation of the market. Many of the 3D releases were conversions of movies that were not well suited for the format and, thus, quality declined and so did interest from audiences.
While 3D films have fallen out of favor with domestic audiences, they remain exceptionally popular internationally – especially in China. Indeed, “Avatar” made the bulk of its money outside of the U.S. — a whopping $2.08 billion.
“If I’m reading between the lines for this distribution plan, it seems like Disney and 20th Century Studios are gauging the state of 3D’s branding and they may use the box-office results to inform how ‘The Way of Water’ is handled,” Robbins said. “While Cameron will want to push the 3D version for fans who want to see it the way he filmed it for, it’s also hard to ignore the very large audience out there who has never become as enamored with the format as they have with other 2D premium viewing options.”
Current estimates for the film’s rerelease range from $7 million to $12 million, with box-office analysts saying a figure in the mid-teens would be “huge.” It’s also facing stiff competition from the historical action epic “The Woman King,” which had a strong opening this past weekend and could be primed for a long, successful run at the box office.
“It would be a massive understatement to say that there is a lot riding on the ‘Avatar’ brand and with at least three more filmed installments on the way,” Dergarabedian said. “The rerelease of the original this weekend will be the linchpin for what the future holds for the universe of Pandora and beyond.”