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No Single Movie Can Save Theaters, But The New 'Avatar' Sequel Won't Hurt

The blue-skinned character of Neytiri in "Avatar: The Way of Water", is readying a bow and arrow with a determined look on her face
Zoe Saldana stars as Neytiri in "Avatar: The Way of Water." The sequel to 2009's global hit could gross as much as $175 million in its debut weekend in domestic theaters.
(Cedric Dumler / Courtesy 20thCenturyStudios
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A large part of James Cameron’s new Avatar sequel is set underwater. And that’s exactly where theater owners are right now: buried under massive debt, with attendance nosediving.

No single movie can reverse the collapsing fortunes of exhibitors, whose long-term prospects remain about as palatable as stale popcorn. But Avatar: The Way of Water, which opens this weekend, could at least save the fourth quarter for theater owners, who have been desperately awaiting a hit ever since Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opened a month and a half ago.

Box-office prognosticators estimate that Avatar could gross as much as $175 million this coming weekend, and a total of $500 million worldwide over those three days. In Thursday previews, the sequel grossed a strong $17 million.

Given that it’s not a superhero movie — there are zero Marvel or DC characters to be found — such a strong opening would be especially significant. But the sequel does have box-office history on its side: The original Avatar, released in 2009, remains the highest-grossing film ever, with worldwide receipts of $2.9 billion (2019’s Avengers: Endgame is second, with $2.8 billion.)

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Whatever Avatar ends up taking in, it won’t alter the inescapable fact that movie theaters will never be what they once were.

The pandemic didn’t create but rather exposed the fundamental problem with the theatrical model: it hadn’t changed in more than a century. If you wanted to see a movie at the multiplex, you could only choose from a handful of titles playing at a fixed time in a specific venue.

Streaming has none of those limitations. Now that the major studios are releasing fewer films theatrically, and rushing such movies to their streaming platforms, the audience has been educated: don’t leave your house.

That said, there’s no way that waiting to watch Avatar: The Way of Water on Disney+ can match the experience of seeing (and hearing) the movie on a big screen, ideally in 3D.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen Avatar: The Way of Water. So if you feel safe among strangers, head to the multiplex: If there’s one movie worth leaving the house for, this might be it.

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