Disney and 20th Century’s Avatar: The Way of Water opened in China over the weekend to $57.1 million, a starting haul that would be considered a heroic comeback for Hollywood in the increasingly choppy China market — if the movie were made by any filmmaker other than James Cameron.
Presale rates and other online measures of audience interest had suggested Avatar 2 would open in China with well over $100 million. But a growing COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing and other major cities appears to have dampened consumer activity and scrambled all precedents. Analysts now believe the film’s performance will be characterized by a long ebb and flow of earnings rather than a tsunami.
“China’s theatrical industry continues to labor under the impact of COVID, with significant impact to original estimates,” says Rance Pow, CEO of regional box-office consultancy Artisan Gateway. “This includes what may be a reluctance of people to return in force to public spaces, including cinemas — ironically, as COVID policies become more adaptable to local conditions. If so, Avatar 2‘s long runtime may work against it. However, the film is sporting excellent social media scores, James Cameron has an immense fan base in China, and his films have an established performance record of legging out well.”
On Friday, leading Chinese ticking app Maoyan was projecting Avatar 2 would earn $360 million (RMB 2.51 billion). Forecasters had good reason to be bullish: Shortly before Friday, The Way of Water exceeded the presales total achieved by Chinese blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin 2, which earned more than $100 million on its first day in February and ultimately topped out at $626 million. But by Sunday, Maoyan’s full-run forecast for Avatar 2 had been slashed to $143 million (RMB 1 billion), reflecting how unreliable the usual indicators had become amid the uncertainty of public health conditions.
Nonetheless, The Way of Water has been wildly well received by the Chinese viewers who have seen it so far. The film sports high social scores of 9.3 on Maoyan, 9.2 on Alibaba’s ticketing app Tao Piao Piao and 8.2 on movie site Douban.
As in many markets, The Way of Water is performing especially well on Imax in China. The film opened to $15.8 million on 735 Chinese Imax screens, a 27 percent share of the film’s weekend total, Imax’s best indexing ever in the country (overall, it was Imax’s fourth-biggest opening in China).
The Way of Water‘s fate in China now comes down to how consumer behavior evolves over the coming weeks as the local public copes with its first experience of widespread COVID infection as an everyday fact of life. The country is seeing its first nationwide surge in cases since the lifting of most testing requirements and pandemic restrictions earlier this month.
In the new absence of regular, mass testing, the extent of China’s outbreak has become a matter of guesswork, but anecdotal evidence — long hospital waits, businesses hampered by absent staff and unofficial accounts of COVID fatalities — suggests a major spike underway. And while most of the world has grown accustomed to life with COVID, the Chinese public is experiencing a form of whiplash. For over two years, Beijing’s propaganda messaging has portrayed the virus and its variants as extremely deadly, as the government worked to maintain support for its draconian COVID-zero policy and the many sacrifices it entailed. Now, with restrictions suddenly lifted, official messaging has abruptly reversed course, with state media describing the latest varients of the virus as far more harmless. Alarmed by the speed of change in the official stance, a large share of the Chinese public appears to be responding by simply hunkering down and voluntarily semi-self-isolating until circumstances are clearer.
Avatar 2 has time on its side — to an extent. Assuming it is granted an official screening extension after its first four weeks of release, the film will have a largely unfettered run at Chinese cinemas until the Lunar New Year holiday, beginning Jan. 22, when the sequel to local sci-fi hit Wandering Earth debuts.