Avatar: The Way of Water
This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Jake Sully, voiced by Sam Worthington, in a scene from "Avatar: The Way of Water." Image Credit: AP

Walt Disney Co.'s Avatar: The Way of Water generated $134.1 million in US and Canadian theaters in its debut weekend, results that fell short of some estimates for one of the most highly anticipated films of the year.

The picture had been expected to take in between $145 million and $179 million, according to researcher Boxoffice Pro.

Disney lowered its own forecast to more than $130 million on Saturday, from a previous projection of more than $150 million.

The Way of Water produced an additional $301 million in sales internationally, the company said in a statement Sunday. That includes about $57 million from China, where a resurgence of Covid-19 may have limited audiences. Disney had projected China sales would reach $50 million to $100 million.

The number puts the picture in a tie for fifth place with the Warner Bros. film The Batman for the biggest opening weekends of the year domestically.

The two best openings belong to Disney's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which brought in $187 million in May, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which generated $181 million in November, according to Comscore Inc. data.

The results were a disappointment for investors in theater stocks such as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Imax Corp., which are still struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Many exhibitors had high hopes for the picture, with AMC Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron tweeting last week that seeing the film on the big screen would become a "global phenomenon."

In a statement Monday, AMC said revenue over the weekend was "materially ahead" of the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, when the film Jumanji: The Next Level made its debut.

AMC shares fell 7.9% on Monday, Imax was down 5.5% and Cinemark Holdings Inc. tumbled 10.3%. Disney sank 4.8%, to close at its lowest level since the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.

It may also be hard for Disney to recoup its investment. The production costs alone for The Way of Water have been reported by various news outlets to be greater than $350 million.

Director James Cameron said in an interview with GQ that it would have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing movie of all time to make a profit, suggesting receipts of greater than $2 billion.

The performance may also raise concerns about the overall franchise going forward. Disney shot two films at once, and plans as many as five in total, stretching out to 2028.

The Way of Water was among the widest releases in Disney history, debuting on over 12,000 screens in the US and Canada and 40,000 internationally. Still, ticket sales may have been held back by its three-hour-plus running time, which limits the number of showings a theater can schedule.

An extraordinarily high 57% of viewers watched the film in 3D. While that higher-priced format will boost revenue, some viewers may have waited to buy tickets until they could find a good seat in a 3D theater.

"We had over 3,000 3D screens out of 12,000, giving audiences the option to see the movie in the best immersive environment possible," Tony Chambers, Disney's head of distribution, said in a telephone interview Sunday.

An unusually high percentage of presale tickets for the sequel were for screenings to take place after the opening weekend, Disney's Chambers said -- about 20%, compared with about 5% for Marvel films.

"We always said that this isn't going to play like any movie we've seen of late and it's not about opening day, or even opening weekend, it's about the entire run," he said.

The picture follows the story of a moon called Pandora and the colonization that threatens the indigenous Na'vi humanoid race that inhabits it. About 82% of critics recommend it, according to the review site RottenTomatoes.com.

The first Avatar was the highest-grossing picture of all time with $2.92 billion in box-office sales.

It's potentially the most significant film franchise to come from Disney's $71 billion purchase of Fox's entertainment assets in 2019.

The former Fox studios have produced a number of movies that fell short at the box office, including Amsterdam and a remake of West Side Story.

It will have a long runway to generate more sales over coming weeks. Only four other films are getting wide releases in the US this month, half the number of pre-pandemic times, according to Comscore.