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Box office: 'Avatar: The Way of Water' grosses $53 million in opening

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After years of development and production, James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel has reached judgment day.

Disney and 20th Century Studios’ “The Way of Water” took off at the box office with a solid $53 million from 4,202 opening-day locations, a figure that includes $17 million from Thursday previews. This ranks as the year’s sixth-highest domestic day one grosser, lower than those earned by “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($90.7 million), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ($84.2 million), ” Thor: Love and Thunder” ($69.5 million), “Jurassic World Dominion” ($59.5 million) and “The Batman” ($56.6 million). It’s also significantly higher than the $26.7 million the first “Avatar” took in on its opening day in 2009, though the sequel will come with the benefit of Thursday previews and years of anticipation.

Everyone has their eyes on “The Way of Water” as it hopes to assemble a bountiful box office; it’s not every weekend that theaters get a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time. When the first “Avatar” managed a $77 million domestic opening in 2009, many reports were less than satisfied with the initial performance, pointing to the film’s highly mythologized production process and Cameron’s superlative box office success with “Titanic”. 1997, then the highest-grossing film ever. But with premium format underloads and phenomenal retentions stretching months later, “Avatar” remained strong, eventually knocking off “Titanic” to take over the all-time record.

With very little competition over the holidays, “The Way of Water” is hoping to mount a similar blockbuster run. The film received strong praise from some critics without being unanimously praised, currently holding a 73% approval rating from top critics on review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. The general public seems to be much more positive; the film earned an “A” grade through research firm Cinema Score, indicating strong approval among first round ticket buyers.

It’s not just a matter of seeing whether Cameron’s latest can fully justify its massive $350 million production budget (much less match the financial success of his previous films). “The Way of Water” comes at a time when exhibitors are hungry for an event to drum up business during the holiday season. The year’s total box office will likely end with an alarming drop from the pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019. And after an auspicious summer season with a variety of hits, foot traffic in theaters has eased during the fall season, with little more than “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” actually drawing crowds.

On that topic, the superhero sequel is now the year’s second-highest-grossing film at the domestic box office, surpassing the $411 million gross of its Marvel counterpart “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” “Wakanda Forever” is expected to take a distant second on the domestic charts this weekend, projecting a haul of $5 million to boost its total North American gross to $418 million.

Universal’s Christmas action film “Red Night” could compete for silver with “Black Panther 2.” The film is also projecting around $5 million for the weekend, down 42% from its previous release. The total domestic gross now stands at a solid $30 million for “Violent Night.”

Disney’s “Strange World” appears to take fourth place. After earning around $510,000 on Friday, domestic ticket sales are now at around $30 million. It remains a disastrous performance for the animated adventure, which carries a production budget of $180 million.

Searchlight Pictures’ “The Menu” will round out the top five, projecting to take in $1.5 million in its fifth weekend of release. With over $30 million in domestic ticket sales, the culinary comedy has been one of the few special titles to find a substantial audience in recent months.