The debut trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water pulled in nearly 150 million views in a single day. This isn’t surprising, yet it also isn’t cause for celebration. On one hand, Avatar is the current highest-grossing film of all time, so a sequel should garner that much attention. On the other hand, the original Avatar is infamous for leaving little cultural impact, and many wonder if, 13 years later, it’s too late now for a sequel — let alone the four sequels creator James Cameron has planned. Indeed, Avatar: The Way of Water is operating in a different environment than the original film did, and it’s probably not a good sign for Cameron’s passion project that the main thing people seem to be talking about is why this movie even exists.
Racking up 150 million views is certainly impressive, but it should go without saying that trailer hits don’t equate to ticket sales. Fifty Shades Darker had a similarly headline-worthy 24-hour trailer count, clocking in at around 114 million views back in 2016, but I can guarantee you that 114 million people didn’t see Fifty Shades Darker. Trailers are meant to sell customers on a movie, and view counts just represent how many people could potentially see the film.
If the purpose of the trailer was to sell people on why they should go see Avatar: The Way of Water, then the film has done a mixed job. Looking at the comments on the main account page, you’ll find a lot of people praising the technical achievements of the trailer. Cameron has delayed production of the film numerous times in part because the one thing he wanted to perfect with this film was filming underwater. He wanted to make underwater motion capture look seamless, as he has a deep passion for the sea, filming several documentaries on the ocean and undergoing a solo deep-sea excursion of the Mariana Trench in 2012.
If that was the case, Cameron should have put these details front and center in the Way of Water trailer. Throughout the one minute and thirty-seven seconds, there were a total of four shots showing off this new technology. That was probably enough to entice many James Cameron fans, but to general audiences that don’t know the production of the film and why it took so long for us to actually see the damned thing, it just looks like pretty water physics. That isn’t as big of a selling point as the original film’s advancements.
When Avatar released in 2009, marketing centered on Cameron’s latest technical passion project: 3D. 3D had been a gimmick within the film industry since the ‘50s, but Avatar was one of the first movies to make it feel fundamental to the viewing experience. Indeed, there’s no denying that Avatar was meant to be seen in 3D and took years to develop the tech to fully immerse audiences. This almost certainly led to its high ticket sales; if you wanted to see Avatar in 3D, as it was shot to be in, you had to pay a little extra.
The evolution of 3D technology was easy to communicate to viewers. What makes water motion capture into cutting-edge tech that everyone needs to see?
Even then, cutting-edge tech doesn’t guarantee the final product is going to become revolutionary. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the first major film to release in theaters shot in 48 frames per second, but that didn’t notably boost its box office. In fact, that was one of the elements most filmgoers criticized, as it’s easier to tell the fakeness of what’s on screen. Tech doesn’t sell movies; good movies sell movies. If the experience is something that you need to see, then word of mouth will make audiences flock to the theaters, as was the case with the original Avatar.
Cameron and his crew at 20th Century Studios aren’t marketing Avatar: The Way of Water on its technical achievements. They’re marketing it as a sequel to Avatar, which may or may not pay off. The original film has a devout fanbase, and it’s probably safe to say that there’s a contingency of people that are nostalgic for the world it created. But if the studio is expecting that will be enough to generate revenue to justify further sequels and get close to the amount its predecessor made, that may be a mistake. Just because something is associated with a popular franchise doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically make money hand over fist, something Warner Bros. is currently finding out with its Fantastic Beasts franchise.
The cinematic landscape is different today than it was a decade ago. Back then, cinemas were king and Avatar was something that audiences were starving to see. It had been years since there was a multi-million dollar sci-fi epic with special effects that could only be dreamed of. Cameron himself pioneered those types of movies with The Terminator and Aliens.
But now, Avatar: The Way of Water doesn’t feel special. Marvel is the biggest game in town, and all of its films are multi-million-dollar sci-fi epics with special effects that continually impress audiences. Avatar used to be one of the most expensive movies ever made, but now more than a dozen movies have surged past it.
Then there’s just the environment itself. Like it or not, streaming is the way to go now, with the theatrical run getting smaller and smaller to rush films onto streaming services. Ticket sales are down from where they were back then, partly due to the advent of streaming services, but also due to the COVID-19 pandemic crippling the theater industry. Your tentpole blockbusters are still garnering huge numbers, but those have generated a cult of FOMO that basically demands you see it release day or else risk spoilers or the stigma of not being a true fan. Avatar is not a franchise that can command such a presence, especially after a decade of people clarifying if you’re talking about the series with the Airbenders or the one with the blue people when you bring it up.
Then again, history may be ready to repeat itself. People underestimated Avatar back in 2009, unsure that it would even be a hit at the box office, only to end up being proved completely wrong. That could very well happen here. Maybe all of the trailer hits will convert into ticket sales, or audiences will be moved by the aquatic cinematography and flock to theaters again to see it. But it all seems a little too idealistic to me. The reality is that James Cameron may have an uphill battle if he really wants all those additional sequels to be made.