The Way of Water Dominates with Healthy $134 Million

The weekend that theaters have been waiting for is finally here. Actually, it’s more likely to be a seven-week-plus period during which James Cameron’s 13-years-in-the-making sequel should stay atop the charts to boost popcorn sales while Hollywood mostly sits this season and the next month out. There are strong opinions about the film and camps staking out positions waiting for the numbers to roll in, which will make for a long season of box office watching. Speculation abounds, but do the numbers tell us anything after just a few days?

King of the Crop: Avatar: The Way of Water Opens to a Healthy $134 Million, but Is It Enough?

The reigning King of the Box Office, James Cameron, is indeed King of the Crop this weekend. But enough words, let’s talk numbers. In the beginning there was $17 million: that’s what Avatar: The Way of Water made on Thursday. Solid number, right? Sure, but compare that to the three Marvel films that had better Thursdays in 2022 (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – $36 million, Thor: Love and Thunder – $29 million, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – $28 million), not to mention Top Gun: Maverick ($19.2 million) and The Batman ($17.9 million), and it puts things into perspective. That $17 million doesn’t even rank in the all-time top 30 of Thursday previews. Immediately, Way of Water watchers began thinking doom and gloom.

Through Friday, the film turned that $17 million into $53 million. The only film with a Thursday/Friday combo of less than $60 million that achieved an opening weekend over $150 million was 2007’s  Spider-Man 3, and that one started with $59.8 million. The Way of Water is estimated to have grossed $134 million domestically over the weekend, just hitting the Top 40 chart of all time in the No. 37 position. What is is that everyone says? “Don’t bet against Cameron?” Well, for the gamblers out there, here are your first odds: 39 films have grossed over $400 million in box office history, but only 16 of those did so after opening with less than $150 million. Based on that statistic, The Way of Water only has a 41% chance to reach $400 million domestic when the original film did over $700 million in its initial run.

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

But legs, legs, legs — that’s what we’re hearing so adamantly at the moment, so let’s consider that. When Avatar opened in 2019, it was only the fifth-best opening of that year. (You may also hear a lot about a big snowstorm that weekend.) Regardless, it ultimately went on to gross almost as much as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine combined. A $77 million opening into a $749.7 million gross comes out to a 9.73 multiple. Back in 1997, Titanic’s was 20.97. However, history again folds against The Way of Water here: Out of 117 films to open with over $75 million, only 45 of them (or 38.4%) have multiplied their opening by over 3 and only eight (or 6.8%) have a multiple over 4. The best multiple on this list after the original Avatar is this year’s Top Gun: Maverick, which joined the $700 million club with a 5.67 multiple.

But don’t bet against Cameron. OK, we hear you. How do its legs look this weekend? Let’s examine it day by day. Subtracting its Thursday numbers from Friday amounts to an estimated $36 million, which then reportedly went to $44.5 million on Saturday. That’s a solid 23.61% bump. Among films that have opened to $125 million or more, here are the top 10 Friday-to-Saturday bumps:

Frozen II (+48.47%), 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (+32.08%), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (+31.29%), Black Panther (+30.06%), Captain Marvel (+28.91%), Avatar: The Way of Water (+23.61%), Deadpool (+22.73%), Avengers: Infinity War (+21.97%), Captain America: Civil War (+21.20%), Deadpool 2 (+17.54%)

(Photo by 20th Century Studios)

Pretty good company to be in there, except that the two $675+ million films also began with $200+ million openings, there are three films that failed to break $400 million, and only one other film then cracked $500 million. The Way of Water’s estimated Sunday drop of 17.98% is neither great nor terrible, though it is around double the drop that Black Panther and The Dark Knight experienced. As suggested already, Avatar: The Way of Water should be No. 1 for the next several weeks, at least until M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin kicks off February — unless, of course, the cult of M3gan shows up big next month. But achieving the No. 1 spot in and of itself isn’t the end goal, as it won’t mean much unless Avatar continues to draw audiences in big numbers.

The five highest December openings (all higher than The Way of Water and four of them being Star Wars movies) began their run on the third weekend of the month, right before the very profitable Christmas vacation period. (Most schools do not let out until Dec. 23 this year and go back on Jan. 9.) By weekend seven, these films ranged between $3.21 million and $11.11 million. Avatar has the best seventh weekend ever with $31.28 million — Titanic is second. By that seventh weekend, the five December films that opened over $150 million had crossed half a billion. That is the number that The Way of Water will reach globally this week, as it stands around $434 million estimated through Sunday.

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

(Photo by 20th Century Studios)

You want another number? $2 billion. That’s what James Cameron himself has said the film needs to break even, a number that Disney execs are probably telling him to shut up about. Published reports about the budget (around $460 million sans P&A) would actually set that bar a lot lower. But if the man himself is speaking it, he must know about all the upgrades to the ledger. It’s also a number that no film has hit since the pandemic. Yet. It remains to be seen if The Way of Water will be the first film to breach it; a lot of ancillary dollars will be made off of it, but if audiences devalue it enough during its initial theatrical run, that is not a sign that numbers are going to increase for its sequels. Love or hate Avatar now or forever, the numbers will have a story to tell. The first chapter has suggested some foreshadowing, but it is still just the first chapter.

The Top 10 and Beyond: Violent Night Stays Steady, Wakanda Forever Drops to No. 3

One of the films that The Way Of Water is currently chasing is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which was knocked off its throne after five weekends. For its sixth, the second-place film grossed $6 million to bring its total over $419 million. That is the 21st-best total after 38 days of release and just a few million behind The Dark Knight Rises, which had a $7.2 million sixth weekend and finished with $448 million. The drops should be smaller over the holidays, leaving $450 million still in play for the Marvel film, which passed Multiverse of Madness’ $411 million earlier this week. Worldwide, the film is over $786 million.

Universal’s Violent Night might not be doing Avatar or Black Panther numbers, but it’s still a small cause for celebration, at least for the studio. Dropping just 39% in its third weekend to $5 million, the Die Hard Santa Claus film has seen its total rise to $35 million domestic (and $55.2 million worldwide), passing Disney’s Strange World in the process after it made just another $2.2 million. After 17 days Violent Night is also ahead of Universal’s PG-13 December releases of 47 Ronin ($35.26 million) and Krampus ($35.16 million), and it’s now on a pace to pass $50 million domestic. Not bad for a little $20 million production given a shot in a barren marketplace.

Searchlight Pictures probably feels pretty decent seeing The Menu continue to work its way up their charts. The horror foodie satire passed $32 million, setting its sights on surpassing both Jojo Rabbit ($33.1 million) and The Favourite ($34.3 million), which would make it the studio’s highest-grossing film since 2014’s Wild ($37.8 million). Sony’s Devotion saw the biggest drop in theaters this weekend (1,247), and like every film in the bottom half of the top 10, it didn’t even gross a million dollars; its domestic total now stands at just $18.7 million. Black Adam lost the second most theaters (890 of them) and finished its ninth week of release with a total of $167.6 million. Strange World lost 690 venues and Fathom’s I Heard The Bells dropped 521, but everyone there is likely happy with almost $5 million in the bank.

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans only lost 18 theaters as it hit VOD this past week and grossed $750,000 for a running total of $8.7 million. Another Oscar hopeful, A24’s The Whale with Brendan Fraser, remained in six theaters this weekend and grossed $169,000. That’s a 49% drop from last week’s haul of $332,152, bringing its total to around $596,000. Darren Aronofsky’s film begins to expand further this week.

On the Vine: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish Hopes to Charm Family Audiences

Entering the wave of Avatar next week is Puss In Boots: The Last Wish. Universal is hoping the sequel to the spinoff from the Shrek series will be the most successful family film of the year since their Minions: The Rise of Gru last summer. It is currently registering a 97% with critics and should at least be the third highest-grossing film of the holiday season. Damien Chazelle’s three-hour anti-Hollywood epic Babylon also opens with hopes of awards glory. Will audiences be up for all the debauchery more so than the critics, who have saddled the film with a so-so 65% Tomatometer? Speaking of critics, they haven’t yet had a look at the music biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Sony must not have much faith in the film, but it nevertheless arrives after a series of successful entries into the genre such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and this year’s Elvis.

Full List of Box Office Results: December 16-18, 2022



Avatar: The Way of Water

  • $134 million ($134 million total)



Violent Night

  • $5.62 million ($35 million total)



Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

  • $5.4 million ($419 million total)



Strange World

  • $2.2 million ($33.8 million total)



The Menu

  • $1.7 million ($32.1 million total)




  • $825,000 ($18.6 million total)



The Fabelmans

  • $750,000 ($8.55 million total)



Black Adam

  • $500,000 ($167.7 million total)


I Heard the Bells

  • $309,815 ($5 million total)



Empire of Light

  • $235,000 ($471,821 total)

Erik Childress can be heard each week evaluating box office on Business First AM with Angela Miles and his Movie Madness Podcast.

[box office figures via Box Office Mojo]

Thumbnail image by ©Marvel Studios

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