Disney finally gets break in China with Dec 16 theatre release for Avatar sequel

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SHANGHAI – The long-awaited sequel to American director James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy blockbuster Avatar (2009) will be released in mainland Chinese cinemas on Dec 16, 20th Century Studios said on Wednesday.

Avatar: The Way Of Water will open in China on the same day as its global release, the film production arm of Walt Disney Studios said on its official Weibo account.

The Avatar sequel is one of the few major tent-pole films from Disney to be granted access to the country’s movie market since the beginning of the pandemic, with recent Marvel blockbusters shut out. Disney had screened footage for executives of China Film Group earlier this year, raising prospects for a release in the country.  

So far in 2022, 23 American films have been shown in China, accounting for 10 per cent of total box office sales, the lowest proportion since records began in 2011, according to China-based ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment. There were 28 American films released in the country in 2021, accounting for 12 per cent of ticket revenue. More than 50 titles were shown in 2019, for a 32 per cent market share. 

Disney’s most recent film shown in China was the animated film Encanto, which was released in January and earned 76.7 million yuan (S$14.75 million) in box office revenue. Other popular movies have also been previously approved, including Jurassic World Dominion, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and The Batman. That raised hopes that more Hollywood blockbusters may get the green light.

But the business environment remains uncertain. Disney’s recent Black Panther: Wakanda Forever hasn’t been approved for release in China and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings have also been shut out.

Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick was not shown either as it is seen as celebrating the US military, while the appearance of a Taiwanese flag on a bomber jacket worn by Tom Cruise’s character also angered many Chinese social media users.

It is also unclear how much Avatar: The Way Of Water will earn as China’s film market has been hammered by frequent Covid-19 lockdowns that have kept patrons away from cinemas. Movie ticket sales in the first 10 months of 2022 were down 34 per cent from 2021 and more than 50 per cent below 2019’s takings.

Still, Avatar remained the highest-grossing film in the world for nearly a decade until it was overtaken by A...

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