Disney’s “Avatar” Can’t Keep Movie Theaters Going Forever

There’s good news and bad news for the multiplex industry. The good news is that Walt Disney‘s (DIS -0.90%) Avatar: The Way of Water is the top draw at domestic movie theaters for the seventh weekend in a row. The bad news also happens to be that Avatar The sequel is the top draw for the seventh consecutive week.

Avatar: The Way of Water topped $2.1 billion in worldwide tickets since its mid-December debut, sliding in as the fourth-highest grossing movie of all-time. It’s the only film at this end of the pandemic that has surpassed $2 billion in global box office receipts. It’s the larger-than-life spectacle that exhibitors needed, a movie that has to be seen on the big screen — ideally in Imax with 3D specs.

So where do we go from here? Overall domestic ticket sales for all movies over the weekend clocked in at $70.9 million, the worst showing since the week before the Disney blockbuster hit a multiplex near you. Interest fades quickly, even for blockbusters that generate some replay appeal. Hollywood needs another hit, because whatever comes up must come down.

Image source: Getty Images.

The way of gravity

The ironic twist to the Avatar success story is that it opened poorly in its home market. The $134 million in US ticket sales that it collected for its premiere weekend was well shy of the $175 million that industry watchers were expecting. It could have been because people were glued to their TVs watching the World Cup. Yes, that’s how long this movie has been dominating at the box office.

The film’s debut went so poorly when it came to domestic audiences that the narrative quickly became how much of the film’s production costs Disney would have to write down in the near future. Some argued that the film would need to rake in between $1.7 billion to $2 billion in ticket sales to turn a profit, and that didn’t seem likely at first. It cleared those hurdles earlier this month.

Avatar: The Way of Water has grown legs, particularly overseas. It may not seem like much of a stateside phenomenon, but more than two-thirds of its ticket sales have come from international markets. It’s still going strong in key foreign territories. There were $42.4 million in tickets for the film sold outside the US over the weekend, compared to a domestic take of just $15.7 million.

It will soon be time to hand off the baton. January is typically a slow month for movie studios, which try to serve up some of their promising films ahead of the peak holiday season. They also try to get their potentially award-winning pieces out before the end of the year to qualify and stay fresh in the minds of industry voters. It’s not a surprise that the country’s top two draws over the weekend — Avatar: The Way of Water and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish — have been playing for at least six weeks now.

Don’t look for a major shake-up this weekend. Horror fans may turn out for M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the cabin to see if the director can regain his touch for the gift of jaw-dropping plot twists. 80 for Brady may appeal to some older movie buffs who wax nostalgic over the classic multiplex experience. The pipeline for blockbusters will ultimately be fairly dry until Disney’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opens on Feb. 17.

In short, it will likely be Disney handing off the baton to itself, taking over the Imax and premium-priced screening experiences at the multiplex.

Until Hollywood picks up the pace on its blockbusters, consumers have a right to wonder what is wrong with the industry. Large audiences are only turning out for big superhero or action flicks. Sometimes a family-friendly movie breaks through, but otherwise it’s lean season for movie theater stocks. Disney already delivered three of the four biggest films of 2022, and it seems like 2023 will be yet another sequel.

Rick Munarriz has positions in Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: long January 2024 $145 calls on Walt Disney and short January 2024 $155 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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