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OpEd: How Can a Movie Make $435 Million Opening Weekend and Still Be a ‘Flop’?

How does this happen?

20th Century Studios’ Avatar: The Way of Water is out in theaters, but it is apparently at risk of being arguably the most expensive flop in movie history. The sequel grossed $134 million domestically on its opening weekend. That is almost double what its predecessor, James Cameron’s Avatar, made years ago ($70 million). Adding the global box office numbers, the VFX-pushing epic starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana raked in just under half a billion dollars.

HALF A BILLION DOLLARS! And it caused the Disney stock price to tank? And people are talking about it being a flop? How?

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D23/Twitter

Granted, its opening weekend was not The Walt Disney Company’s biggest in recent days. Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness generated over $440 million globally, and Spider-Man: No Way Home brought home $600 million. But those are still impressive numbers. And for a movie like The Way of Water to earn such impressive numbers–even before the release in China–and be seen as a failure, receiving such a negative reaction is utterly insane.

Reports estimate that the second installment of Cameron’s planned Avatar anthology needs to earn over $2 billion just to break even. In his own words, the movies are “Very f-cking [expensive],” but this first sequel reportedly cost Disney $350 million. This project has also been in the works for over 13 years, reportedly spending three years to make the second and third movie back to back–suggesting that plenty of money was spent by the then-20th Century Fox before the historic merger with the Mouse House.

According to Variety

Cameron apparently told Disney and 20th Century Studios executives that his sequel budget was so high it represented “the worst business case in movie history.” According to the director’s estimates, “you have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even.”

How is such a film project even worth it at that point?

Avatar 2 Box Office

For the record, there have only been five movies ever to break the $2 billion mark, unadjusted for inflation, at the global box office. And the top three have had multiple re-releases in theaters to get there! Those movies are Cameron’s original Avatar ($2.9 billion), Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame ($2.7 billion), Cameron’s Titanic ($2.1 billion), Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.07 billion), and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War ($2.05). Cameron’s Avatar sequel will have to overtake J.J. Abrams and/or the Russo Brothers to earn an unprecedented third spot on this list.

Now, we have to give credit to Cameron for not only his dedication to his vision–it is a rich and visually spectacular world he has created–but also for his blunt honesty with the folks at Disney and 20th Century. The ordering of Avatar: The Way of Water, and the third film (supposedly titled Avatar: The Seed Bearer), might just be the worst business case in movie history.

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Related: Audiences Boycott ‘Avatar’ Sequel Due to James Cameron’s Offensive Comment

Unless The Walt Disney Company plans to profit off of any motion-capture technology, or any other new movie magic goods that were created during the production process, it just does not make sense why any studio would back such an endeavor.

Right now, there are four Avatar sequels planned out, but Cameron appears to be in a position where he is able to appropriately close out Jake Sully’s story with the already-produced third movie, if the case may be.

“The market could be telling us we’re done in three months, or we might be semi-done, meaning: ‘OK, let’s complete the story within movie three, and not go on endlessly’ if it’s just not profitable,” Cameron said.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not hating on James Cameron or his new movie. And I do not doubt the rave reviews it has received from the audience. But no movie should ever cost so much that a nearly half-billion-dollar opening weekend triggers warning signs of a potential flop. That is utterly ridiculous, and, after this year, seems to be an ego-driven business move that only The Walt Disney Company could seriously make.

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Sam Worthington returns as Jake Sully in Avatar 2. Image Credits: 20th Century Fox

Related: Theater Owners Say No to ‘Avatar 2’ After Disney Demands 70% Cut

I will continue to pray and root for Avatar 2’s success. But unless you are filming a sci-fi movie in actual space, no flick should ever be so expensive it needs to shatter records just to see the smallest ROI come in. Especially when the parent company still refuses to reinstate the dividend payout for its frustrated investors.

We at Disney Fanatic will continue to update our readers on Disney Movie news and stories as more developments come to light.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s and may not reflect the sentiments of Disney Fanatic as a whole.

About T.K. Bosacki

TK is a writer and editor based in Tampa, FL with a passion for all things Disney, and adventure.