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‘Avatar’ sequel grosses $17 million in Thursday showings

“Avatar: The Way of Water” grossed a solid $17 million in ticket sales from Thursday “preview” showings in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates, an early indicator that the long-awaited James Cameron sequel is on track for a strong start at the domestic box office.

The movie, which cost at least $350 million to produce before marketing, is expected to collect $150 million to $175 million in North American ticket sales through Sunday, according to box office analysts.

The new film comes 13 years after the original “Avatar,” which remains the highest grossing movie ever, not adjusting for inflation, at more than $2.9 billion.

Walt Disney Co. is releasing the film, which it inherited through its 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Disney is counting on “Avatar” to become a franchise. But the movie will have to be one of the top films of all time to be considered a success, and opening weekend is just the start of what the studio hopes will be a remarkably long run.

Pre-sales are strong not just for the debut but also for subsequent weekends, according to exhibition sources.

“This is a tortoise, not a hare,” said Imax Corp. chief executive Richard Gelfond earlier this week. “This is built for a marathon.”

3-D screenings, which are more expensive for ticket buyers, will be a crucial factor for “The Way of Water.” So far, 61% of grosses have been for screenings in 3-D and other premium formats, according to Disney. Reviews have been largely positive, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 80%.

Results from Thursday evening screenings are typically not reliable indicators of full weekend performance, especially considering that the “The Way of Water” is hitting theaters amid the holidays and its grosses are expected to be more spread out.

By comparison, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” earned $28 million from preview showings, on its way to grossing $181 million during its debut weekend. But massive Thursday numbers are typical of Marvel pictures. “Wakanda Forever” has generated $772 million in box office revenue.

Internationally, “The Way of Water” is doing strong business, with $50.4 million from the 44 countries where it has been released so far. Top markets for the film include South Korea, France, Germany, Mexico and Australia.

The movie’s performance in China will be pivotal to its overall success.

The Chinese government recently eased “zero COVID” policy related restrictions, making for good timing for Cameron, Disney and China’s massive movie theater industry. The studio is anticipating that “The Way of Water” will gross a strong $18.5 million from its first day of release in China, including $5 million in “sneak” screenings, not included in the company’s $50.4-million international box office tally.

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