Expert comment - Avatar: The Way of Water - Can sky-high expectations for 2022's biggest blockbuster prevail during the cost-of-living crisis?

Categories: School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology

It has been 13 years since the release of James Cameron's Avatar and its sequel has finally come to cinemas across the world. In interviews, Cameron has said that the film needs to make $2 billion at the box office just to break even; however, following the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis, many people may be reluctant to go to the cinema.  

Dr Martin Flanagan, a Hollywood expert and lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Salford gave his view on this. 

“The welcome for this long-in-gestation sequel seems hard to predict, because the market itself is more volatile (and that is without even factoring in how Covid can quickly change people’s behaviours).  

“In 2009, ‘cinematic universes’ were barely a thing, but we now have several competing for the entertainment dollar and for streaming eyeballs (including that of Marvel, within Avatar’s Disney home base).  

“The worldwide crisis in inflation and rising household bills is a salient factor even when compared to 2009, itself just one year on from a great financial crisis and market crash. 

“In 2009, the average movie ticket in the States (leaving aside price-swelling ‘premium’ add-ons like 3D – hugely relevant to Avatar as we shall see) was priced at around $7.50, whereas in 2021, it was $9.57

“With most families likely to perceive that the ratio of their household costs to their income has significantly increased during that time, while others will pay monthly subscriptions to streamers such as Netflix (in their nascency in 2009), the cost of a family outing to even a ‘vanilla’ screening of Avatar 2 is considerable.” 

Avatar was originally released in 2009; however, it wasn’t until 2013 when video streaming on platforms like Netflix became popular. Now there are a variety of streaming services meaning people can access the latest films and TV series from their own homes at the click of a button. 

“The streaming issue is a live one for Avatar 2’s theatrical chances, too. 

“Although the Covid-19 pandemic raised a huge debate around the relationship of theatrical viewing to streaming, with some garishly apocalyptic predictions about a fatal threat to theatrical cinema not appearing to come to pass, gaps (or ‘windows’) between theatrical releases, and availability to purchase a digital copy or stream as part of a subscription, have been narrowing for blockbuster cinema.  

“Marvel/Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi, 2022) debuted on US/UK screens on 5th May of this year, but was available on Disney Plus less than 50 days later.  

“Although a radically different type of film, awards-challenger The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh, 2022) - another Fox/Disney release - looks set to take only 60 days to reach Disney Plus by Christmas 2022.  

“The reduction of windows does not mean that theatrical screening is going away; it does, however, eat away at the exclusivity that at one point, along with quality of experience, was the unduplicatable premium of the cinema visit. 

“This will impact on box office, even if Disney can cover itself using Avatar 2 to draw new home subscribers or persuade others to renew a commitment.  

“A portion of consumers will no doubt calculate that Avatar 2 will soon reach the service and may be happy enough with the picture and audio set-up they already have at home to host Cameron’s movie.  

“Although statistics show us that in general, 3D cinema is in severe decline, audiences will remember that the first Avatar was the biggest showcase for the technology’s most recent wave.  

“However, less 3D showings are available except in the highest-cost premium formats like IMAX 3D (not available everywhere), and general moviegoers have arguably lost the habit of donning the glasses, even for CG-rich fantasy action epics.  

“Some may be counting on receiving Christmas presents of technology that will boost their home cinemas to a greater standard for the film’s eventual home release.  

“Audiences may even choose to re-direct money that would once have been reserved for Christmas cinema tickets to start a subscription to Paramount Plus, to catch current 2022 Hollywood champion Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosminski, 2022) in its release this week.  

“Of course, many of the above caveats around streaming and the cost of living could have been posted against that film’s box office chances, reminding us that audiences will still muster in huge numbers for the right release.” 

The runtime for Avatar: The Way of the water sits at three hours and 12 minutes. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the length of the films we see in cinemas.  

“Although now almost obligatory for the event movie, even when creative ambitions seem relatively modest – long gone seem the days when Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997) ran to just 98 minutes – a leisurely runtime of three hours and ten minutes (190 minutes) is another challenge faced by Avatar 2.  

“This can compromise the fitting of enough screenings into a day when theatrical demand is at its greatest (the early days of release when hype, positive reviews and advertising are still potent in consumer consciousness).  

“Some analysts, for example those at Deadline Hollywood, have pointed out that as a Christmas season film, the staying power of Avatar 2 will not be revealed until after the big day has passed.  

“Yet, it is a fact that 2022’s huge legacy success Top Gun: Maverick, for instance, could easily be fitted in to seven screenings on a weekend day, whereas Avatar 2 can manage only five per screen (of course, many cinemas will compensate for this by showing the film on multiple screens while business is highest, that is, in December 2022 – at least until the film’s performance level has been gauged).  

“The financial bracket to which the costly Avatar 2 must aspire includes those films which recovered between $1-2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office over the last twelve months; we may count among these Maverick; Spider-Man: No Way Home (Jon Watts, 2021), and Jurassic World: Dominion (Colin Trevorrow, 2022).  

“The average runtime of that set of films is a good forty minutes shorter than Cameron's film. However, Avatar 2’s theatrical bow does have the advantage of a relatively small Covid-19 risk perception, in the United States and much of Europe, compared to 2021 releases that under-performed at theatres (such as the last James Bond film - although the lingering Covid-19 threat did little to harm the monstrous box-office of Spider-Man). 

Avatar 2, a film in a franchise tradition that might be called more purely fantastical than some of its competitors, enjoys one further considerable advantage over most of the aforementioned films - it has won a release in China.  

“Its model of heroism - at least judging from the first film - is based on understanding the environment and respecting the land, coupled with a broad, non-state-based critique of militarism; unlike Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler, 2022) or Paramount’s Maverick, say, ascribing specific politics to it can be difficult. 

“On the Chinese mainland, it is not unreasonable to expect a performance along the lines of the first film (at least as far as the country’s own pandemic problems allow).  

“Although American imports are now routinely more challenged by domestic Chinese popular cinema product than in years past, back in 2010, Avatar was the year’s top cinema attraction.  

“This month, Hollywood Reporter was extrapolating from its opening that the sequel would become the year’s top Hollywood movie there.” 

The technology utilized in the sequel is not Cameron’s first foray into underwater filmmaking and Laurence Murphy, a senior lecturer and researcher in media technology at the University of Salford explains the link between this picture and Cameron’s earlier film The Abyss (1989) 

“For the new [Avatar] instalment, 13 years after the release of the original, [Cameron] has incorporated new camera systems, the Sony Venice 2, new advanced 3D camera rigs to produce reactive 3D material. 

“This has called on techniques from his earlier film, The Abyss, released in 1989, which benefited Avatar 2. The Abyss was shot primarily underwater in a new nuclear cooling tank filled with millions of litres of water and the set was sunk in.  

“The actors trained to dive and act underwater and the lighting and camera equipment were redesigned at Cameron’s behest to work the way he needed them to work. Those techniques and skills have been updated to produce the underwater sequences for Avatar. The advanced water CGI (computer generated imagery) is also state-of-the-art generation special effects. When I saw it, I was stunned. The combination of scale, 3D done very well and a completely immersive visual experience combine to make this a real cinematic experience.” 

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