Last Weekend Proved That Audiences Still Care About ‘Avatar’
James Cameron’s Avatar opened with $10 million domestic and $30.5 million worldwide this weekend. That makes it, for better or worse, the biggest-grossing movie at the worldwide box office. It’s the biggest domestic gross for a reissue since Jurassic Park 3-D ($18 million) in April of 2013. That marked the unofficial end of a brief surge of 3-D reissues of super-popular blockbusters like The Lion King, Titanic and Star Wars Episode One – The Phantom Menace. The $30.5 million worldwide gross already makes it the biggest global reissue since… Avatar. The Sam Worthington/Zoe Saldana epic returned to Chinese theaters in early 2021 where it earned an additional $57 million, pushing it back over Avengers: Endgame as the world’s biggest grossing movie. This reissue pushes its global total past $2.9 billion, and it affirms that, yes, general audiences care about Avatar.
Whether Avatar ever had the kind of perpetually online fandom associated with Marvel, Star Wars or Game of Thrones, it still earned $760 million domestic and $2.75 billion worldwide in 2009/2010. It still earned an additional $430 million in DVD and Blu-Ray sales (just through 2014), a total for which (at least among DVD and Blu-era biggies) only Frozen ($416 million) comes close. We surely did not spend the last decade obsessing over Pandora and memorizing the names of Avatar’s lead characters (His name is Jake Sully… his name is Jake Sully!). However, most audiences treated Avatar the same way they treated most big-deal theatrical blockbusters like The Last Jedi, Age of Ultron or Star Trek into Darkness. They saw it once or thrice in theaters, liked or loved it (or not), and moved on with their lives.
As I (and others) have discussed over the last few years, the very things that made Avatar sometimes feel like a ‘forgotten blockbuster’ have inspired a skewed renewed nostalgia for its singular existence. It was just a movie, an original auteur-specific movie that prioritized top-shelf filmmaking and clockwork plotting over quotable dialogue and memes. It wasn’t explicitly intended to launch a cinematic universe or provide fodder for a streaming spin-off series; it wasn’t a feature-length prologue for the sequel and it more-or-less stayed ‘gone’ for 13 years. I wasn’t a fan of the final season of Lost, but how that show has aged well merely by remaining a singular six-season television epic, with no spin-offs, reboots or revamps in the works. Likewise, Cameron’s Avatar came, earned rave reviews, won a few Oscars, conquered the box office and then ‘vanished.’
Even now, with one sequel on the way and three more in various stages of production, Avatar is still ‘just’ a theatrical franchise. Whether everyone is frothing at the mouth for The Way of Water, audiences saw Avatar once or twice in theaters and (generally speaking) liked the experience quite a bit. The notion of taking another trip to Pandora thirteen years later is surely an enticing theatrical proposition if only due to the lack of commitment. Audiences showed up to The Hobbit trilogy ($2.9 billion over three films) just as they showed up to the Star Wars prequels ($2.53 billion) partially due to the reasonable commitment. A movie every year for three years or three movies once every three years is much different than endless television episodes or a shareholder-driven five-part prequel franchise to Harry Potter.
$57 million in China and $30.5 million-and-counting everywhere else is evidence that audiences still care about Avatar at least enough to roll the dice on its first sequel. That’s not even counting new fans created by Disney World’s ‘Pandora – The World of Avatar’. I don’t know if Avatar: The Way of Water will be good enough to inspire continuing interest in the next three chapters. But in terms of commercial results, even a 50% global drop would put it in Frozen II/Top Gun: Maverick territory. Moreover, a full-fledged release in China ($205 million in 2010 on 10% of the screens now available) should make up for quite a bit of global decline. However, this weekend’s box office results, once again making James Cameron ‘king of the world,’ refutes the notion that nobody cares about Avatar.