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The Accidental Turitz: An Avatar Mea Culpa, and Other Box Office Observations as 2023 Starts Strong

You would think, by now, that I would stop doubting James Cameron. A piece I wrote in the fall suggested that, while Avatar: The Way of Water would be phenomenally successful, it would not actually break the $2 billion mark, and thus might be seen as something of a disappointment to both Cameron and Disney, where top brass would be watching closely to see if it’s worth it to make any more of these films beyond Avatar 3, which is already in the can.

This opinion, we now know, did not age well.

The Way of Water will be Cameron’s third movie to clear that magical monetary marker, which would give him exactly half of all such films to do so — the others being Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. Though it does not appear that the Avatar sequel will surpass the original’s $2.9 billion-plus take, it will at least fly past Titanic’s nearly $2.2 billion and get to third place all-time on the worldwide charts. Pretty good.

So, I humbly submit that I was wrong, I apologize to all who were offended, and I pledge to never question the esteemed James Cameron ever again.

That said, I can’t give Cameron full credit for resurrecting the slumping box office, which hasn’t quite been the same since the pandemic started. Though the success of The Way of Water certainly hasn’t hurt, the fact is that 2022 was actually a pretty good year for theaters, all things considered, and besides Cameron, credit is due to several superheroes, a few dinosaurs, a frightening number of great horror movies, and, of course, Tom Cruise, all of whom played a major part in achieving global grosses that cleared $7.3 billion.

Now, when you consider that from 2009 to 2019, the box office returns cleared $10 billion each year, with a high of $11.89 billion in 2018, that $7.3 billion figure might sound less impressive. However, when you factor in that pesky COVID thing that shut down theaters for roughly a year, the overall hesitancy of millions (including my in-laws) to return to theaters, and the fact that 2020 saw grosses of $2.1 billion and 2021 $4.48 billion, that $7.3 doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it? At the very least, it implies upward growth, and while moviegoing may never return to 2018 levels, it could very well get back into the 11-figure range.

Tom Hanks A Man Called Otto
Tom Hanks in A Man Called Otto/Sony Pictures

With that in mind, 2023 is off to a strong start, with the first week of the year nearly doubling the first week of 2022 ($137 million to $78 million) thanks to M3GAN and holdovers such as Avatar and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, while the second week of January brought new releases from genuine movie stars such as Tom Hanks (A Man Called Otto) and Gerard Butler (Plane).

I think that it’s safe to say that Cruise remains the biggest movie star in the world and, in a sense, the only true movie star left, if only because he does things no one else dares to, including Hanks. Part of it has to do with the fact that Cruise makes bigger movies than Hanks does, and is constantly striving to top himself with death-defying stunts that put him in great danger. Exhibit A is his work in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which is expected to up the action stakes even further with the epic two-part sequel Dead Reckoning, and Exhibit B would be the aerial battles showcased in Top Gun: Maverick.

That stuff has never been Tom Hanks’ thing. Unlike other box office draws, he hasn’t built his appeal on action movies, instead focusing on making films that adults want to see. Just like, for instance, A Man Called Otto. Sony cut such a sugary sweet, saccharine trailer for that film that I thought it was going to give me diabetes, though it also seemed to appeal to older audiences every time it popped up on a movie screen over the last couple of months. Sure enough, since it hit theaters on Friday, it has already taken in more than $20 million, which isn’t bad considering the holiday movies that are still out there raking in the big bucks, as well as the fact that it’s the middle of January when people tend to stay inside watching football or otherwise coping with the winter doldrums. Of course, it helps that A Man Called Otto is actually pretty good, but that’s sort of beside the point.

There is an argument that thanks to the expanding release calendar that sees big-draw superhero movies opening in previously unappealing February and March slots, the doldrums don’t really exist anymore, but I think it’s fair to point out that any movie being released around this time of year has a built-in handicap, for the simple reason that the holidays are over, many people are movie’d-out thanks to the crowded months of November and December, and there’s also that pesky reluctance to sit in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers who may or may not be carrying around the latest variant (again, see: in-laws, my).

Thus, with all this in mind, Hanks’ continued draw — with a little melodrama based on a Norwegian book and movie, no less — is even more impressive, and Otto‘s success should serve as a reminder that while the two-time Oscar winner is hardly bulletproof anymore — he’s had more than a few box office clunkers over the last few years — he still has the ability to put butts in seats. Considering how long he’s been doing it, it’s practically awe-inspiring.

Plane movie
Gerard Butler and Mike Colter in Plane/Lionsgate

On a lesser level, but still impressive, is Butler’s continued drawing power, as evidenced by Plane, a movie that I referred to in my Six Word Review™ as “Stupid. And entertaining. Also stupidly entertaining.” Another movie whose trailer didn’t really do it justice, Plane scored a $12 million opening, which would be quite good for a normal MLK weekend. A year ago, the latest incarnation of Scream led this weekend with $33.8 million, followed by Spider-Man: No Way Home‘s $24.6 million in its fifth week, and Sing 2 with $10.3 in its fourth. Taking into account the $40 million that Avatar made, and how many people got their action fix that weekend from Cameron’s movie instead, that’s a pretty good haul for Plane, especially given its unfortunate title. How basic.

However, Butler is sort of a surreptitious movie star, and while he can’t be depended upon to draw Cruise-like numbers, let alone Hanks numbers, he’s certainly reliable for a specific level of movie. Plane reportedly cost $50 million, and there’s no reason to believe it can’t make at least that much domestically, and much more worldwide. After all, over the course of the last 25 years or so, Butler’s movies have earned north of $3.5 billion.

Does that number surprise you? Because it sure surprised me. And then I thought about it and realized that though the kinds of movies he’s been making for the last number of years haven’t necessarily set the world on fire, they do make money. Some of them make a lot of it, and while we’ll never confuse Gerard with either of the Toms, he’s the right guy to front a certain kind of movie — like, say, a fun, mid-budget actioner about an airline pilot who saves his passengers from Philippino separatists.

The point of all this is that Cruise aside, the standard idea of what a movie star is has changed these days. And it’s not just actors anymore, though Hanks is certainly a prime example of a timeless star whose appeal continues through the decades. Butler’s appeal is of a lesser, but still-important value, but characters and even filmmakers (like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Jordan Peele) are now on the list, too. Anything James Cameron does is going to be a draw. Any quality horror movie — hello, M3GAN — will be, too, as will a halfway-decent superhero flick.

People go to the movies to see all kinds of films, and the further we get from the worst of the pandemic, the more we should be focused on getting as many people back into the theaters as possible, which means making a wide variety of movies. So whether it’s a big-budget blockbuster like Avatar: The Way of Water, a B-movie action vehicle for Gerard Butler, a psychotic dancing android, or just plain old Tom Hanks and a cute cat, let’s continue to give credit wherever — and to whomever — it’s due.

Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.

You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.



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