“Avatar: The Way of Water” has an imposing task on its hands.
When the much-anticipated James Cameron sci-fi epic is released on December 16, it will need to make more than $2 billion at the global box office, just to break even. That’s according to Cameron himself, who told GQ for a story published this week that the movie is “very f–king” expensive and possibly represented “the worst business case in movie history.”
“You have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even,” Cameron explained to the magazine.
The sequel’s release also comes at a momentous time for Disney with Bob Iger retaking the throne of the Magic Kingdom. The movie will be the first major release for Disney since he returned as CEO. And, it is worth noting, while the film was ordered before Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, for some of the movie’s development, Iger was chief executive at Disney. Which is to say, “Avatar’s” performance will reflect on him to a degree.
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But a not-so-insignificant part of whether the lofty $2 billion+ box office goal can be achieved depends on whether audiences will rush to open their wallets and pay extra for what is being touted as an immersive 3D film experience. When the first “Avatar” debuted nearly 13 years ago, moviegoers filled theaters in droves with the explicit desire of seeing a dazzling 3D movie, glasses and all.
It was the peak of the 3D craze. Back then, you’ll remember, 3D was considered the future of cinema and “Avatar” was the movie that would usher in a magical new era of storytelling on the big screen. Approximately 80% of the movie’s gross was from 3D showings. “Avatar” became the highest-grossing film of all-time, making nearly $3 billion. It was a smash hit, Cameron was celebrated yet again, and expensive sequels were green lit.
But the era of the 3D film, in which it was groundbreaking to go all-in on the format, has long passed as the concept has lost its allure. Box office sales of 3D movies are on life support and have been for some time. The number of films released in 3D has been in decline since the format exploded in popularity around the time the first “Avatar” came out.
Which is to say, the fact that “Avatar: The Way of the Water” depends so much on the format represents somewhat of a risk for Cameron and Disney. “It is a big bet,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Prosaid. The sequel, he said, “is one of the hardest movies in quite a while,” to predict in terms of success, “in large part because of that 3D element.”
While the format was a draw for audiences in the past, 3D movies also allowed studios to earn extra dollars from the higher-priced tickets.
The first “Avatar” benefited from a cocktail that included both the magnetism of a 3D spectacle and the inflated ticket prices. And it’s already clear that Cameron and Disney are hoping to benefit from them again. “Experience it in 3D,” urged a new trailer for the movie that debuted this week during “Monday Night Football.” The movie’s official site also recommends audiences see the movie “in 3D.”
“It’s mostly going to be 3D, and that’s a big bet,” Robbins said, noting that most of the showings will present the movie in that format. “But James Cameron has won big bets before. So I have learned not to doubt him.”
Cameron himself has made it clear that he hasn’t given up on the format. Ahead of the sequel’s release, he insisted that the style of moviemaking is “really not over,” though he appeared to acknowledge the buzz around seeing movies presented in the format has dissipated.
“It’s just now a part of your choices when you go to the theater to see a big blockbuster movie … I liken it to color,” Cameron reportedly said at a roundtable in September. “When color films first came out, it was a big deal. People would go to see movies because they were in color. I think around the time of ‘Avatar,’ people used to go to see movies because they were in 3D … I think it had an impact on how films were presented that’s now just sort of accepted and part of the zeitgeist and how it’s done.”
The question, of course, is whether 3D is in fact “part of the zeitgeist.” Box office figures — and the dwindling number of films released in 3D — would suggest otherwise.