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During his promo tour for Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron has mentioned repeatedly that his sequel will need to be among the top grossing movies in box office history — likely the $2 billion club — to succeed. On Nov. 22, the director scored a key win in that quest when Disney and 20th Century revealed that Avatar 2 had secured a coveted release in China on Dec. 16, day-and-date with North America.
With China clamping down hard on Hollywood imports over the past year — the seven most recent Marvel superhero movies have been denied permission to screen there — the green light for Avatar 2 was seen as a considerable coup. Disney and its business and diplomatic allies in China are said to have spent months back-channeling with Beijing regulators to secure the clearance. But with China’s nationwide COVID infection rates hovering around all-time highs and health policies in a state of flux, Disney will need even more good luck for Avatar 2 to live up to its full earnings potential in the country’s massive theatrical marketplace.
China’s box office has been battered throughout 2022 by Beijing’s unrelenting zero-COVID policy, which has resulted in scores of weeks-long lockdowns in major population centers, casting a chill over all forms of public consumer activity — including moviegoing. As of Dec. 5, total box office sales in China were just over $4 billion for the year, down 36 percent from the same point last year and less than half of what they were during the equivalent period in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Public frustration with the Beijing’s harsh COVID policies boiled over into nationwide protests in late November, forcing authorities to finally begin easing some pandemic measures — although a negative test result remains a requirement to access a cinema almost anywhere.
When Avatar 2 lands in China on Dec. 16, an as-yet unknowable number of the country’s movie screens will be in operation. On Nov. 28-30, just 35 percent of China’s cinemas were fully open, per estimates from regional consultancy Artisan Gateway. Thanks to the recent relaxation, some 46 percent of cinemas were running at full capacity Dec. 6 — and Artisan Gateway’s president, Rance Pow, says he’s optimistic that “more cinemas nationwide are likely to recover” between now and Avatar 2’s launch. Still, the COVID limitations are a big obstacle if the expectation is for Avatar 2 to rank among the biggest releases in history — in league with, say, Avengers: Endgame, which brought in $629 million of its $2.8 billion global total from China in 2019.
Then again, James Cameron has beat the odds in China before. Among Chinese millennials, few titles are as stirringly nostalgic as the first Avatar. The movie was among the first wave of Hollywood blockbusters to sweep the country as it was entering its high-growth box office boom era of the late aughts — and Avatar became the biggest sensation of them all. The film opened on a bitterly cold Monday in Beijing in January 2010, instantly setting a new record for the biggest weekday opening ever. The Hollywood Reporter‘s Beijing correspondent at the time wrote of Chinese cinemagoers lined up outside theaters in foot-deep snow, waiting to get a glimpse of Cameron’s 3D visions of Pandora. The film was so popular in China that Cameron even held early discussions about potentially co-producing his Avatar sequels there.
Avatar, which premiered in China in early 2010, topped out at $202.6 million, an astonishing sum at the time, when the country was home to just 5,690 movie screens (today, there are over 82,000). It took three years and the construction of thousands more cinemas for Avatar‘s China record to fall (to Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, which brought in $215 million in 2013). And when the first Avatar was re-released in China in March 2021 — part of a bid by regulators to boost sales during a pandemic fallow period for both Chinese and Hollywood releases — it earned a healthy $58 million, the fourth most of any U.S. movie that year.
Chinese audiences have a strong appetite for the sequel. On leading ticketing app Maoyan, 1.24 million users have said they “want to see” The Way of Water, slightly more than those who indicated likewise before the release of China’s biggest 2021 film, The Battle at Lake Changjin, which earned $899 million. “It’s very hard to predict the box office right now,” says Jimmy Wu, CEO of Lumiere Pavilions, one of China’s largest premium cinema chains. “It all depends on the lockdowns — and we have no idea exactly what the lockdown situation is going to look like across the whole of China next week.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.