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Opinion Does the world really want an ‘Avatar’ sequel?

Director James Cameron in Beijing for the premiere of "Alita: Battle Angel" in February 2019. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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There’s a running joke that “Avatar” is the biggest movie ever made to leave no cultural footprint. If you mention “Avatar” on social media, someone will quickly and proudly proclaim they cannot recall the main character’s name (it’s Jake Sully) or even a single line of dialogue (okay, you got me there). For a picture that grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, the thinking goes, it has had little lasting impact.

This winter, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the first sequel of a multi-movie rollout, hopes to return audiences to the unobtainium-rich planet of Pandora. The big question is whether our own world of theatrical exhibition and audience taste has moved on. But at the risk of being made to look very foolish in a few months, I’ll put my money on James Cameron. The director has a solid enough track record of turning doubters into believers — along with an ace up his sleeve overseas — that a smash-hit sequel is the surest bet.

Of course, “Avatar: The Way of Water” faces a very different business environment than the original did 13 years ago when it debuted. The emergence of 3D as a means of not only attracting audiences to theaters but also getting them to pay more for the privilege was still a relatively new phenomenon in December 2009. While “Avatar” wasn’t the first 3D release, it was the first must-see 3D release, an accomplishment owing to the love and care and, frankly, obsessiveness of Cameron.

That obsession paid off in a big way. When “Avatar” passed Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic” as the highest-grossing domestic film of all time, it did so on the back of those surcharges. “Breaking domestic down, nearly 81 percent of ‘Avatar’s’ gross is from 3D presentations,” Box Office Mojo reported at the time. “Normal 3D accounts for over 64 percent of the gross, while IMAX 3D accounts for more than 16 percent.” That surcharge, plus normal ticket inflation, meant that “Avatar” topped “Titanic’s” record while notching half as many actual admissions.

Movie audiences, however, shifted decisively away from 3D presentations in the years following “Avatar’s” triumph. In part, it is because a rash of awful-looking movies featuring 3D conversion — that is, a 3D effect created within a computer rather than by shooting with 3D cameras — made the format feel like a cheap cash grab designed to separate fools from their money. (Which, to be fair, is basically what the format was.)

As a result, the proportion of revenue generated by 3D sales has remained in steady decline. In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year for which we have reasonably good comparison figures, just 15 percent of global box office revenue was generated by 3D, a dip from 21 percent in 2015. And the only reason it wasn’t even lower than that is the surge of 3D theaters built in the Asia-Pacific region.

I imagine folks will make an exception to their 3D aversion given that the last movie many of us remember being worth the extra expense was the predecessor to “The Way of Water.” If Cameron could engineer a 3D coup once, he could do it again. But whether U.S. audiences return to the format might be something of an afterthought. The “Avatar” sequel will benefit hugely from the biggest way the movie business has changed over the past 13 years: the pivot to China.

“Avatar” reclaimed the worldwide box office crown from “Avengers: Endgame” with its 2021 rerelease in China that added more than $20 million to its total — at that point, the biggest box office take in China since theaters had reopened following the pandemic’s closure of theaters. As Forbes’s Scott Mendelson noted, “Avatar” grossed $206 million in China on its initial release; that was a third of what “Endgame” grossed a decade later … but it did it on just one-tenth as many screens.

Simply put, the appetite for “Avatar” content in China is enormous. Assuming the sequel gets a full release — always a question given Chinese censorship and the country’s ever-fluctuating coronavirus restrictions — it’s hard to imagine Cameron’s follow-up grossing less than $1 billion in China alone. Most likely, the ceiling is actually much higher.

As for us back in the states? One preliminary piece of data suggests we’re not yet ready to leave Pandora behind for good: “The Way of Water’s” teaser trailer racked up nearly 150 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours. Is that good? Well, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the figure beats every recent “Star Wars” movie. So, yeah, pretty good.

It’s James Cameron’s waterworld. We’re just swimming in it.