You may wonder why the 2015 Star Wars movie hardly anyone talks about anymore gets a headline today. Well, Hollywood box office still has to reach pre-pandemic levels, in fact total domestic US box office in 2022 is on the same level as it was in 1999, with about $7.3 billion in 2022 (unadjusted for inflation!), which is $4 billion less than in 2019, the last year before Covid disrupted the movie business. It’s better than in 2021 and 2020 (much better), but still a far cry from what Hollywood used to make.
Much of the underperformance of the Hollywood movie business is attributed to the pandemic and changed viewing habits, with people allegedly preferring to watch movies on streaming platforms instead of going to the local cinema. So it’s of note when in times like these a new movie is released that just beat the #4 movie of all time at the worldwide box office (The Force Awakens): Avatar – The Way Of Water. I will talk more about that later, but another reason I bring up Avatar is that it once more points the finger at one of the core weaknesses of Star Wars. And what is that weakness? Click through for more!
Hollywood goes through something of a crisis at the moment. Box office is very underwhelming, even though in 2022 it was a lot better again than in 2021 and 2020. As mentioned the reasons usually provided cite the pandemic and changed viewing habits as the main culprits here. The studios even experimented with releasing AAA blockbusters on streaming platforms at the same time as releasing them in cinemas, or just a short time later, hoping to make up for lost revenue because of the pandemic. Several movies were even exclusively released on streaming platforms.
In fact, if you adjust box office results for inflation then 2022 is one of the worst years for Hollywood ever, adjusted for inflation Hollywood made more money at the box office in 1983 than in 2022. That will give you an idea about how bad things currently are. Of course home video was still in its early days back then and there were no streaming platforms, so comparing box office results from decades past is somewhat unfair. Using dollar value as your metric is also flawed, because this will always favor new releases, in Germany the number of tickets sold is used to determine the box office charts, while not perfect either it’s still a better metric to measure actual popularity and success across decades than using ticket prices. Gone With The Wind is still the movie with the most tickets sold in the US, for example, but because of how cheap tickets were in the 1930s it has no chance against Avengers Endgame, even if fewer people overall watched that movie. So what movie is more successful and popular?
Anyway, the reasons given for the underperforming movie business don’t seem to apply to James Cameron movies (or Tom Cruise movies, or Spider-Man movies). In fact, Avatar – The Way of Water, just knocked The Force Awakens down one place in the all time worldwide box offce charts last weekend. And this at a time when Hollywood is in the doldrums.
Avatar 2’s worldwide total box office is now $2.117 billion, beating The Force Awakens’ $2.071 billion from 2015/16. Which now makes Avatar 2 the 4th most successful movie worldwide (unadjusted for inflation of course). The other four movies? Are James Cameron’s first Avatar, then Avengers Endgame and finally James Cameron’s Titanic. So Cameron now has three movies in the top 4 most successful movies of all time (again, only unadjusted for inflation!). That is quite impressive. It also puts into question all the explanations given for Hollywood’s abysmal box office results. We already saw it in 2021 – at a time when the pandemic was much more revelant than it is today – when Spider-Man No Way Home lured moviegoers into theaters like no other movie that year. That movie made $1.9 billion in 2021, obliterating the competition. The movie made $1.2 billion more worldwide than the #2 movie that year, the rather terrible James Bond movie “No Time To Die”, yet another movie that deconstructs an iconic hero and then even kills him off. Sounds familiar maybe.
And in 2022/23 Avatar 2 outclasses the competition, even Top Gun Maverick, which was very successful too.
This does show one thing: if there is a good movie people will still flock to theaters and buy a ticket. They did so in 2021 with Spider-Man, they did so in 2022 with Avatar 2, Top Gun Maverick and a handful of other movies. Maybe people just want to have a good time and forget about the real world for a while when they watch a movie, instead of being bombarded with well intended but ultimately not very appealing movies written for “modern audiences”, in fact all the really successful movies in 2022 were NOT written for modern audiences, but are classic crowd pleasing blockbusters. Which shows that Hollywood can still make those movies, if they want to.
But what is so remarkable about Avatar 2 is that it made 70.6% of its money outside the US. While Avatar 2 only made about 2/3 of the money The Force Awakens made at the domestic US box office, it made a lot more money outside the US. And this highlights the key weakness of the Star Wars franchise: outside of the traditional core markets, USA, Germany, UK, France, Australia, Japan and a few select other countries the world is simply not that much interested in Star Wars.
The Force Awakens, the most successful Disney Star Wars movie by far, only made 54.7% of its money outside the US. Which is a very low number for any modern Hollywood blockbuster.
And Disney has failed to change anything about that. The Last Jedi made even less money abroad, only 53.5%, and The Rise Of Skywalker even less than The Last Jedi, only 52%. Solo? 45.6%. Even the overall well liked Rogue One only made 49.6% of its money outside the US. This is almost as bad as both Black Panther movies, both of which also made less than 50% of their money abroad. When most other movies these days make 65-80% of their money outside the US. The US only has ca. 330 million people, which means 8.6 billion people live outside the US, an enormous market.
Now Avatar 2 single handedly saved a rather mixed 2022 for Disney’s movie department, with a few high profile and very expensive movies utterly failing at the box office and losing them money (Strange World, Lightyear) and many of the MCU movies underperforming when compared to previous entries in the franchise. The Black Panther sequel made $500 million less, the Thor sequel made almost $100 million less, only the Doctor Strange sequel made $280 million more and the 2021 box office for both Eternals and Shang-Chi was pretty low, with just $400 million worldwide. The same year the MCU character Spider-Man made $1.9 billion worldwide. So it’s not really Marvel fatigue either. But Spider-Man was a movie made by Sony and it put the emphasis on “fun”. Neither stunt casting nor pandering to China, which failed spectacularly, since Shang-Chi was banned in China, the movie was considered offensive by the officials there, not helped at all of course by China critical remarks by the female Chinese director Disney hired for the movie.
So what can Disney learn from Avatar 2? If you just make a movie that primarily and first and foremost wants to entertain people and lets them forget about the real world for a while, then people will go see it. Inserting modern day Twitter ideology into your movies and then causing these controversies regarding certain plot elements or characters may not be a good idea if you forget to actually tell a fun story.
And Disney should analyze James Cameron’s continuing success and try to learn something from that for their own Star Wars franchise. Because in some ways Cameron is following the tradition of George Lucas. He’s an innovator, not someone who follows trends. Star Wars used to be on the forefront of things, at least in the technical department. Each and every movie tried for something new. You certainly cannot say that about the sequels or any of the other Disney Star Wars movies, they all are your average standard CGI heavy blockbuster, in fact, in many ways the sequels were quite reactionary, even resorting to terrible looking Yoda muppets or technology George originally used in the late 1970s for his movies. This is not progress. And when YouTubers can achieve better results recreating Leia on their home PCs than ILM then you know that something is very wrong (in defense of ILM: they had no time to make Leia and were working under immense pressure, crunch time is the norm in the effects industry, unfortunately and the people working in the industry are very, very angry at Disney / Marvel for mistreating and underpaying them).
So maybe going forward Disney should put entertainment first, instead of in your face political messages. Avatar 2 does have political messages, after all the earth in the Avatar movies was destroyed by climate change and now humans want to exploit Pandora to save mankind and it can be understood as a commentary on colonization and exploitation/destruction of the native population, but it doesn’t scream at you, it lets you draw your own conclusions, and the movie primarily wants to entertain you, not lecture you, and please you with a visual spectacle.
Also, Disney should realize by now that releasing movies on Disney+ at the same time, or maybe even exclusively, is a very bad business decision. There’s still big money to be earned at the box office. If you actually make good movies people really want to see and allow them to escape reality for a while and that entertain them. It has to be noted that Cameron’s Avatar 2 was originally a project for 20th Century Fox and was already in the works when Disney acquired the studio. So it’s a Disney movie in name only really. And of course Cameron has carte blanche, one of the few filmmakers who still have that privilege. Maybe Bob Iger can try to reach Cameron on the phone and ask him for some quick advice on how to make the next Star Wars movie a worldwide success. Because, quite frankly, I have zero faith in the (most likely cancelled) Rogue Squadron and any Star Wars movie written by Damon Lindelof or Taika Waititi. Or any movie referencing the sequels.
Also, Disney /Lucasfilm should stop hiring inexperienced directors for their AAA blockbuster movies and series just because they want to check a box. Actually, people in the effects industry bitterly complain about clueless, inexperienced directors that have NO idea about how CGI works or how to give proper instructions (the director of the recent She-Hulk series was even named in person, a series which was lambasted for its bad CGI), but that is what happens when you hire indie filmmakers that only have experience in making low budget indie movies or documentaries. Making a modern day blockbuster movie or series is not just about getting a good performance out of your actors, you need to know how to stage action, how to implement CGI, how to communicate your vision – and the effects people are growing very, very tired of being abused and having to work overtime all the time, because directors have no clue and want them to iterate on scenes over and over and over again because they cannot communicate what they want or don’t have a single clue about what it takes to create CGI. The effects industry has a name for all that, and pardon the language, but it’s literally called “pixel fucking”. Google it for more details. The people in the industry are fed up. Talk of unionizing is growing stronger. No Actor or screenwriter would tolerate those working conditions. They have strong unions for a reason. And Disney, here especially Marvel, are cited as the worst of the worst offenders, going so far that some studios or artists now outright refuse to work for Marvel.
Or you know what, maybe the person James Cameron is following, George Lucas, may give Bob Iger some advice, if he asked him. Nicely. Iger surely has his phone number. Maybe George can forgive him for ignoring him completely for the sequels and throwing his concepts overboard in favor of remaking A New Hope.
Finally, a hint for future wannabe Rian Johnsons or JJ Abramses… Avatar – The Way of Water did not deconstruct the heroes of the first movie, Jake Sully didn’t go hide in a cave and left his wife and kids to complain about the universe or to become some space grifter, in fact Jake and his wife Neytiri have a loving and very strong family with quite a few kids, biological and adopted. There are problems, sure, but they overcome them as a family. And they even deal with grief and loss without getting destroyed by it. Maybe people like to see that instead of space grifters who abandon wife and kid or washed up heroes who try to kill their own family and then want to die on some remote island, disconnected from everything, abandoning everything. Just a thought.
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