What ‘Avatar’ does (and doesn’t) tell us about going to the movies

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is swimming triumphantly against the usual box office tides, just like “Titanic” did 25 years ago (which is a lifetime in media years). However, just as Pandora’s floating islands defy gravity, trying to draw conclusions from a movie’s box office success as the industry looks for signs of optimism about moviegoing is difficult.

It’s simple to overlook the fact that “Titanic,” directed by James Cameron, wasn’t a particularly successful opening for the two studios that released it. As moviegoers flocked to see it, some (teenage girls were a particularly important cohort) went back more than once, the three-hour plus film then went on to defy the trend toward theatrical revenue being frontloaded and steep post-first weekend drops, sailing to the No. 1 spot for 15 consecutive weeks.

It appears that history is repeating itself, as “Avatar 2” is taking a similar path to how its predecessor did upon release, which led some box office observers to wonder whether Disney, the studio behind it, would ever be able to recoup its enormous investment.

Those worries were reasonable. In fact, before the pandemic and streaming, the skew of theatrical revenue toward opening weekends had already sharpened and become more pronounced.

Currently, people who aren’t motivated to leave right away seem content to wait and watch movies at home on their ever-bigger TVs. That phenomenon affected even the major Marvel sequels from 2022, including Doctor Strange, Thor, and Black Panther.

“Avatar” has not only surged past those films but now seems poised for a prolonged period of theatrical dominance, thanks in part to the pandemic and streaming having contributed to thinning the herd in terms of competition. At its present pace, it could be the first movie to top $2 billion worldwide since “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019 (although “Spider-Man: No Way Home” came close).

The three-hour plus running time of Cameron’s epic, which limits how many times it can be shown in theaters in a day, is one of many factors that should have worked against it.

Theoretically, that endurance-test running time tends to both scare away casual movie-goers and depress theatrical totals – an issue cited in regard to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which runs a half-hour shorter; and “Babylon,” a star-studded spin on Hollywood’s silent era that was basically dead on arrival box office-wise, which has generally been the fate of most of the year’s awards bait.

What makes “Avatar 2” unique, then? It’s a movie that, most obviously, screams “spectacle,” which made people want to see it in theaters, especially on Imax screens and in 3D, even if that meant delaying going out to see it right away. Whereas Marvel films (especially the sequels) compel viewers to see them as soon as possible to avoid spoilers, Cameron’s film places a greater emphasis on the experience than the specifics.

“Avatar” has also performed inordinately well internationally, as the first movie did, in part because its simple themes and stunning visuals bridge issues of language or culture better than most movies can. Thus far, roughly two-thirds of its global box-office haul has come from outside North America, a significantly higher percentage than other pandemic-era hits like “Top Gun: Maverick” (a 48% domestic/52% international split) or the aforementioned Marvel titles.

Given the desperation to lure people back to theaters, the question will inevitably be what Hollywood and theaters can glean from “Avatar’s” example. The truth is, not very much.

As Indiewire noted, the “grim reality” for movie distributors is among the new year-end films released, “Avatar” was the lone entry with anything to truly celebrate as 2022 came to a close.

In other words, there could be just as many costly misses as genuine hits in the search for “another ‘Avatar'”.

Already, Hollywood is expressing optimism about 2023, with an impressive arsenal of identifiable titles to attract people to theaters, starting in February with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

The show must go on, and hope springs eternal. For now, though, “The Way of Water” doesn’t share much in common with the current ways of movie-going. And after a 13-year gap between the original and the sequel, for Disney and theaters, “Avatar 3” can’t come soon enough.