James Cameron’s Avatar was expensive and risky, but ultimately proved a worthwhile investment for 20th Century Fox, and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. Its upcoming sequel, meanwhile, will have to do nearly that amount of money — a difficult prospect in the post-Covid theatrical market — to break even. In what Cameron himself half-jokingly called the “worst business case in movie history,” Avatar: The Way of Water expanded on the scope, the worldbuilding — and the budget — of the first film. The result is a movie that is drawing early raves from people like Guilllermo del Toro, but which will have to make a truly impressive amount of money to break even.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, production on Avatar: The Way of Water cost somewhere in the $350 million to $400 million range. For context, that’s between $50 and $100 million more than Warner Bros. disastrous Justice League movie, which had an estimated “break-even” point of around $800 million.
Typically, big-budget blockbusters need to make twice their production budget back in order to recoup both the expenses related to making the movie, and the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars spent promoting it. In the case of Avatar, it seems likely that Disney will consider anything less than about $1 billion a box office disappointment.
Of course, failing to hit internal goals wouldn’t make the film a failure.
There have been some movies able to make truly impressive box office numbers since the start of the pandemic. Spider-Man: No Way Home earned more than $1.9 billion, and Top Gun: Maverick made just a little under $1.5 billion. If The Way of Water makes that kind of money, few would be crying about the fact that it didn’t make Avengers; Endgame or Avatar money at the box office.
There’s also the reality that Disney has a ton of money invested into the Avatar brand as part of their theme park business. A modest box office success would still be a huge boost to the Avatar-themed attractions Disney owns, and that synergy means a $900 million take-home may not be a huge box office win, but would still be a pretty big win in the bigger picture.
Avatar: The Way of Water‘s early projections have it earning somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to $175 million in its opening weekend. That’s a little less than Black Panther: Wakanda Forever made at $181 million, but still one of the biggest overall openings in the pandemic era.