SHANGHAI – The long-awaited sequel to Canadian director James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy blockbuster Avatar (2009) will be released in 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 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$14.76 million) in box-office revenue. Other popular movies have also been approved, including Jurassic World Dominion (2022), Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore (2022) and The Batman (2022). 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 has not been approved for release in China, and Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (2022) and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021) were shut out.

Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick (2022) was not shown either as it is seen as celebrating the United States military, and the appearance of a Taiwanese flag on a bomber jacket worn by actor Tom Cruise’s character also angered many Chinese social media users.

It is 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 Avengers: Endgame in 2019, but a Chinese re-release of Avatar led to the film retaking the worldwide top spot in March 2021 with US$2.9 billion (S$4 billion), where it has been since.

Earlier in 2022, China gave a rare hint at why American films find it difficult to get approval for local showings, when a senior official called for film-makers to show more cultural respect. 

The approval for the new Avatar film follows recent efforts by Chinese President Xi Jinping to thaw diplomatic chills, including his first in-person summit with US President Joe Biden. The US said the two sides would resume cooperation on climate change and food security issues, and that Mr Biden and Mr Xi jointly chastised the Kremlin for loose talk of nuclear war over Ukraine.

This announcement also comes amid a tumultuous week at Disney that saw Mr Bob Iger return as chief executive officer on Sunday after the ouster of his predecessor Bob Chapek. Mr Iger played an instrumental role in Disney forging close ties with China during his first tenure between 2005 and 2020, when he opened a US$5.5 billion theme park in Shanghai in 2016. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

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