Will ‘Avatar 2’ recreate glory from 13 years ago, save imported films from pandemic ‘Waterloo’?
Box office gamble
Published: Dec 15, 2022 10:14 PM
Promotional material for Avatar: The Way of Water Photo: AFP

Promotional material for Avatar: The Way of Water Photo: AFP

Finally, they have returned. After 12 years, the blue-skinned alien creatures known as the Na'vi are getting ready to enchant Chinese audiences in Avatar: The Way of Water

On Friday, the long-awaited sequel to James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster film Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time at $2.9 billion worldwide, will roll out in cinemas in China. The market has been a lucky place for Cameron, as the original film made over $200 million in the Chinese mainland after it was aired in January 4, 2010. The re-release in 2021 also brought in an additional 375 million yuan ($53.7 million), allowing Cameron to regain the crown from Avengers: Endgame as the highest-grossing film of all time at the global box office.

Will Cameron be able to repeat his success from 12 years ago, during which time the country has grown into the world's second largest film market? Will these blue-skinned creatures bring the magic from the moon Pandora to the people of the Middle Kingdom, who are optimistic about life after the long fight against COVID-19? Will they still buy tickets for a new story to a 12-year-old franchise? 

Ready for a good time 

On December 7, days after Avatar: The Way of Water announced its Chinese release date, China began easing its COVID-19 restrictions, paving the way for cinemas in the country to make a comeback. Along with the return of cinemas, so too has returned moviegoers' enthusiasm for theaters.

As of noon Wednesday, 9,016 cinemas, 72.46 percent of all Chinese mainland cinemas, were open, according to data from Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan. Additionally, presales for Friday's first day screenings had surpassed the 50 million yuan mark. 

The relaxed COVID-19 policies coupled with positive reviews from pre-screenings have led many industry analysts to conclude that The Way of Water is set to make history in China. 

"The splendid box office achievement of Avatar shows that the fantasy epic is not just beloved in the North American market, but has appeal in China," Liu Zhenfei, a data analyst from Maoyan, told the Global Times. 

Advances in film

Rapid developments over the past 13 years has allowed the director to use much more advanced technology and tools to produce the best special effects and movie-watching experience. 

The 2009 Avatar was many Chinese moviegoers first encounter with IMAX and 3D. Now The Way of Water will make its world's debut with the CINITY cinema system, a 3D, 4K and high-frame rate format developed by China.

Xuan Wu, a senior technical staff from the Wuxi Film Exhibitors Association in East China's Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times that CINITY greatly improves the movie-watching experience in terms of brightness and sound.

He explained that CINITY is 4-9 times brighter than ordinary 3D projectors. It supports a maximum rate of 120 frames per second (ordinary movies are 24 frames), allowing a clear and natural picture that is nearly close to the real image observed by human eyes. 

Many Chinese film experts and analysts told the Global Times that The Way of Water is indeed a visual masterpiece, but it might not be able to live up to its full potential in China.

Shi Wenxue, a film critic based in Beijing who has seen the film, told the Global Times that the story of The Way of Water is much simpler than Avatar and some of the plots are cliché.

"A giant in the special effects and a dwarf in plot," a moviegoer in Guangdong Province who watched the preview of Avatar 2 commented on Chinese review site Douban. 

The moviegoer noted that the film is not as good as the first when it comes to character creation, plot structure, world building and the final battle.

"Though we have advanced movie-watching equipment and a large number of screens, the Avatar boom cannot return. Telling a good story has become the key to capturing the hearts of Chinese moviegoers instead of dazzling visual technology," said Shi.

But some others gave a five-star recommendation and believed it is beyond their expectations as the movie brought them a feeling of link between 2009 and 2022.

Xiao Fuqiu, a film critic based in Shanghai, told the Global Times that the current pre-sales for the blockbuster has a huge gap with market expectations. High priced tickets, especially prices for special theaters such as IMAX and CINITY halls, may be one reason for audiences' hesitation to buy tickets.

On Chinese movie ticketing platform Taopiaopiao, a single IMAX or CINITY hall ticket can cost more than 300 yuan. 

Chen Jin, a data analyst from ticketing platform Dengta, told the Global Times that more than 70 percent of the theaters in China are charging an average ticket price of 87.1 yuan, while the average IMAX ticket price is 127 yuan. The film is expected to hit 3 billion yuan at the Chinese mainland box office.

The high ticket prices made some controversy on Chinese social media, as many netizens said that tickets are "too expensive."

Cameron previously revealed in an interview that the new film has to be the third or fourth highest-grossing movie in history to break even. The super high budget - between $350 and $400 million - means that the film must earn at least $2 billion worldwide to break even.

"Considering the huge size of the Chinese mainland film market, as well as the amazing box office record created by the first film in China, The Way of Water needs to create a new box office record to achieve director Cameron's 'break even' statement," said Xiao.