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Box Office Breakdown: Avatar: The Way of Water Opens Decently with $134 Million, But Has Far More Christmas Competition Ahead

As we get closer to Christmas, many more movies are being released, since studios know that business tends to be booming over the holidays. Just like last year (see below), this year will likely be dominated by a single movie, and that’s a sequel to one of the biggest blockbusters released in the past two decades.

This Past Weekend

After an opening day of $53 million – $17 million of that from Thursday previews – James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water finished its opening weekend with an estimated $134 million in North America, which isn’t as great as some had hoped but is on par with Matt ReevesThe Batman back in March. Some might feel that may be a disappointment compared to some of the earlier predictions, but it’s Cameron’s very first $100 million opener in his entire career, despite frequently holding other box office records. (2022 was also the year when another venerable Hollywood vet, Tom Cruise, got his first $100 million opener ever with Top Gun: Maverick.) 

Reviews for the movie weren’t bad, as the follow-up to Cameron’s Oscar-winning 2009 blockbuster scored 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and received an “A” CinemaScore, also a good sign for the movie’s holiday legs. (You can read Isaac Feldberg‘s Above the Line review here, and J. Don Birnam‘s review over on Below the Line.) Getting the rights to Cameron’s movie and potential sequels was part of Walt Disney Pictures’ plan to buy 20th Century Fox, which came to fruition in 2019, after Cameron had already gotten the greenlit to make anywhere between two and four sequels.

International numbers added another $300.5 million to Avatar’s opening weekend, led by $57.1 million from China – less than expected but that region is still being plagued by COVID lockdowns and outbreaks. South Korea was next in line with $24.7 million, followed by Germany with $20 million, France with $19.3 million, India with $18.1 million, the U.K. with $14.2 million, and Mexico with $12.9 million. That adds up to a $434.5 million global opening for a blockbuster that’s likely to have a decent run through the New Year. 

Part of Way of Water’s success can be accounted to “premium large format” screens, which accounted for higher ticket prices and a large percentage of the movie’s opening box office. IMAX reports that $48.8 million of Avatar’s global opening came from their large format screens, and reportedly, 3D made up 57% of the movie’s domestic gross, increased to 62% when including other premium non-3D formats.

After five weeks at #1, Marvel StudiosBlack Panther: Wakanda Forever dropped to second place with $5.4 million, down 52% with a total domestic take of $419 million in six weeks. That makes it the second highest-grossing movie domestically for 2022 but with $300 million than the year’s box office champ, Top Gun: Maverick

Universal’s Violent Night, starring David Harbour, fell to third place with $5 million (down 43%) with $34.3 million grossed in North America. 

That’s more than Disney’s Strange World has made after four weeks in wide release, the animated film adding another $2.2 million (down 42%) to take fourth place with $33.8 million grossed, domestically.

Searchlight Studios’ biggest hit of the year, The Menu, starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy, took fifth place with $1.7 million (down 39%) with Sony’s Devotion failing to find much traction in sixth place with just $830,000, down a whopping 58% in its own fourth weekend. They’ve grossed $32.1 million and $18.7 million, respectively.

Spielberg’s The Fabelmans remained in seventh place with $750,000, down just 36% from last weekend, despite being available on digital and on demand. It has only grossed $8.7 million, but who knows what Universal plans to do with it now, since it’s yet to have played in more than 1,000 theaters in North America.

Weekend Box Office

Rank Entry Distributor Revenue Theater Count Total Revenue
1 Avatar: The Way of Water 20th Century Studios $134,100,226 4,202 $134,100,226
2 Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Walt Disney $5,346,843 3,380 $418,938,028
3 Violent Night Universal $5,054,665 3,525 $35,016,750
4 Strange World Walt Disney $2,210,255 2,870 $33,788,315
5 The Menu Searchlight Pictures $1,627,823 1,875 $32,050,322
6 Devotion Sony Pictures $780,189 2,211 $18,616,143
7 The Fabelmans Universal $743,740 955 $8,659,666
8 It’s a Wonderful Life Fathom Events $734,571 960 $11,557,472
9 Black Adam Warner Bros. $445,515 1,304 $167,667,895
10 I Heard the Bells Fathom Events $310,066 426 $4,994,221


Spider-Man: No Way Home
Zendaya (L) and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home / Sony Pictures

Last year, the weekend before Christmas saw the opening of a movie that not only would become one of the biggest December openers of all time, but it also would go on to become the second-highest grossing movie of all time. That movie was Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third movie directed by Jon Watts, and continuing Tom Holland’s run, although also bringing back two previous Spider-Men in Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. The movie also had the MCU’s Doctor Strange, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a larger role in the story.

Despite the pre-Christmas release, the movie would open with $260.2 million domestically, quickly becoming not only the biggest December opener ever but also Sony Pictures’ biggest hit, going on to gross $1.9 billion worldwide. 

Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of Nightmare Alley, starring Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, and more, opened with a disappointing $2.8 million for fifth place, which continued the trend of adult-oriented prestige films not doing well in theaters. Although the movie would get four Oscar nominations, that was not before the Omicron variant of COVID put a major damper on the box office, for every movie besides Spider-Man: No Way Home.


A scene from Puss in Boots: The Last Wish / DreamWorks Animation-Universal

While Avatar: The Way of Water shouldn’t have much problem winning the next few weekends at the box office, the Christmas weekend brings a whole new set of challenges for anything that chooses to release there. This year, we have three brand-new movies being released nationwide either on Weds or Friday, two limited releases expanding wider, and a few more limited releases.

The widest new release is DreamWorks Animation’s sequel Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, once again featuring the voice of Antonio Banderas as the fairy tale cat from the Shrek movies. The original Puss in Boots opened in late Oct. 2011 with $34.1 million, but that was just over a year after Shrek Forever After, so DWA and distributor Universal will have to hope that enough older kids or parents remember the first movie to make the sequel a Christmas choice. 

With the movie opening on Wednesday in 4,000 theaters, reviews have been very positive with the movie at 97% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, at the time of this writing — that’s better than the original Puss in Boots did with critics — although family movies tend to be fairly review-proof, both positively and negatively. Last year on this weekend, Universal released the animated sequel, Sing 2, which opened with $38 million in its first five days, opening Weds and with Christmas falling on a Saturday. That was also the sequel to a blockbuster that earned $270.3 million domestic just five years earlier. 

The biggest hurdle for The Last Wish is how poorly family movies have been faring at the box office over the past few months, with both Disney’s Strange World and Sony’s Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile doing disappointing business. Puss in Boots might be able to avoid that due to the advance awareness of Banderas’ character and potential appeal for LatinX audiences, who have often been a boon at the box office. I’m going to give the Puss in Boots the benefit of the doubt that it can make around $24 to 25 million over the three-day weekend and maybe another $5 to 6 million on Weds and Thurs.

A scene from Babylon / Paramount Pictures

Another high-profile release is Babylon, the fifth movie from Oscar-winning filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, a look at 1920s and ‘30s Hollywood when silent films were making way for “talkies.” The movie stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart, and Diego Calva from Narcos: Mexico, as well as many others, and it’s very much capitalizing on its prestigious cast and Chazelle’s past achievements like Whiplash and La La Land (for which he won that Oscar). 

Early reviews haven’t been spectacular with Babylon currently sporting a 65% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and that isn’t terrible but is much worse reviews than many other guaranteed Best Picture nominees have gotten. Even so, the movie only started screening in the past month, and it already got five Golden Globe nominations and nine Critics Choice nominations, both groups including it in their list of top films.

Paramount is opening Chazelle’s latest in roughly 3,200 theaters on Friday (with previews on Thursday), although it’s likely to do more of its business on Christmas Day and the week that follows. Even if it ends up with only $10 to 12 million this weekend, it won’t be a complete loss, since Paramount is hoping it will get more awards or nominations in the New Year, which could give it a post-opening boost. 

I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Naomi Ackie in I Wanna Dance with Somebody / Sony Pictures

Another movie that’s likely to get a lot of attention and interest over the holidays is the Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, starring Naomi Ackie (Master of None) as the award-winning pop diva and directed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet). Music biopcs are something fairly common these days, although this one is only the second during COVID after Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis earlier this year. That opened with $31.2 million earlier this year and has grossed $286 million worldwide, but that also had the benefit of A-lister Tom Hanks in it, whereas the most famous person in this biopic (other than Whitney Houston herself) is Stanley Tucci, who plays record producer and exec. Clive Davis

I do think there will be interest in this as a possible option for families with older kids to see together, although the lack of awards attention despite a December release is a little daunting for the movie’s reviews (which are embargoed until Weds, so clearly, Sony is not expecting critics to be raving.) Even so, the Whitney Houston movie should be good for $15 to 17 million this weekend for third place.

Expanding into roughly 500 theaters on Wednesday is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which has already started getting awards attention, including Critics Choice and Golden Globes nominations for star Brendan Fraser, who as of now, is the presumptive Lead Actor winner at the Oscars. It’s likely to add somewhere between $3 and 5 million between Weds. and Christmas Day.

Searchlight Studios will continue to expand Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light on Friday, but considering how poorly it’s been faring in limited release, it’s doubtful it can bring in more than a million this weekend with so much stronger competition.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking, will finally be released by U.A. Releasing’s Orion label into select theaters on Friday. Her impressive cast includes Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw and many more, as it explores a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do about their abuse and rape at the hands of the men of said community.

Other films getting limited or platform releases this Friday include Corsage, Austria’s Oscar submission, starring Vicky Krieps as the country’s beloved 19th Century leader, Empress Elisabeth. Also, the British period drama Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, for which Bill Nighy has been getting Oscar buzz, will get a platform release by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday.

Next week’s Box Office Breakdown will post on Monday, Dec. 26, with a recap of the Christmas weekend box office, and the next one after that will be on Monday, Jan. 2, which will include a preview of the weekend of Jan. 6.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas

Edward Douglas has been writing about the box office for 21 years at places like ComingSoon.netThe Tracking Board, and many others, but mostly under the banner of “The Weekend Warrior.” He’s also a film critic with bylines at Film JournalThe New York Daily NewsDen of Geek, and other places.

Box Office Breakdown will be posted each week by Monday morning. You can read other features by Edward Douglas over at Below the Line.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.


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