Avatar: The Way Of Water Is Holding Steady, With New Year's Weekend Box Office Expected To Match Christmas

Things are looking good for "Avatar: The Way of Water," as projections for its third weekend at the box office add another data point to the map of its trajectory. When the movie debuted earlier this month with a $134 million opening weekend (a huge number, but one that looks slightly less huge next to the movie's eye-watering production budget), we speculated that it wouldn't play like the average Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (front-loaded, with a fast drop-off after the first weekend) but rather more like the first "Avatar" movie: a modest opening weekend, but a strong hold at the box office for many weeks afterwards.

While the Christmas box office weekend was dampened by extreme winter weather, it looks like the holidays have overall been kind to James Cameron's long-awaited sci-fi sequel. Per Variety, "Avatar: The Way of Water" easily held the #1 spot on Friday with a $24.4 million haul, and is currently projected to gross $66.8 million over the three-day weekend and $87.8 million over the four-day holiday weekend. That's on par with the Christmas numbers ($63.3 million over the three-day weekend, $95.6 million over the long weekend), which means "The Way of Water" could be looking at a rare zero percent drop in its third weekend at the box office.

The original "Avatar" also debuted the weekend before Christmas and dropped just 1.8% in its second weekend, and 9.6% in its third. "The Way of Water" had a steeper initial drop of 52.8% between the first and second weekends, but that's still relatively low for a blockbuster these days. At this point there's little doubt that the sequel will break even; if these projections hold, it will pass $445 million domestic by the end of the long holiday weekend, and it already whizzed past the $1 billon worldwide mark after just 14 days. But will its legs prove strong enough to swim through the chilly waters of January and February?

Raise the periscope!

The first couple of months of the year are traditionally a bit of a box office dead zone. Many people's bank accounts are suffering a hangover from Christmas shopping, there's the general post-holiday blues, and the short winter days and cold weather make bundling up inside in front of the TV a more appealing prospect than venturing out to the movie theater. Typically studios avoid major new releases in January and February, instead using them as "dump months" for movies they don't have much faith in.

This can be good news, however, for holiday tentpoles like "Avatar: The Way of Water," with a lack of fresh competition offering a free run at the box office. In particular, this film can continue to have a monopoly over IMAX screens, whose premium price tickets contribute to bigger box office numbers, until "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania" releases on February 17. "The Way of Water" could also get a boost after January 24, when Oscar nominations are announced, depending on how many categories it lands in (Best Visual Effects seems like a no-brainer). The first "Avatar" was nominated in nine categories, and won three.

Movie releases with long theatrical runs are becoming a rarity, with many now moving to streaming after just a few weeks. This is bad news for theaters, which typically get a larger cut of the ticket sales in later weeks, but have been hit with shorter release windows since the pandemic. If "Avatar: The Way of Water" continues to perform strongly in the weeks to come, it could be a much-needed lifeline for the big screen experience as theaters continue to fight for their place in the shifting landscape of cinema.