The economic forces behind Avatar and winning the men's World Cup. : The Indicator from Planet Money The sequel to Avatar has been hyped up for over a decade, but Covid outbreaks in China threaten its box office success. And the World Cup champion will have more than glory to celebrate — its GDP should rise, too.

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Big entertainment bets: World Cup & Avatar

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And I'm Wailin Wong. And it is time for indicators of the week. Today, we are examining the numbers behind two of the most anticipated global entertainment events happening this week.

MA: The Golden Globes and the return of "The Real Housewives"?

WONG: Well, now I have an excellent idea of your media diet. But no, I...

MA: (Laughter).

WONG: ...Am talking about the World Cup and the release of "Avatar: The Way Of Water."


MA: Today on the show, what winning the World Cup means for a country's economy and the high stakes for "Avatar" 2's box office performance.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Messi dances around, turns the corner, gets inside of them, cuts it back. Julian Alvarez - 3 and 0 Argentina.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Mbappe (inaudible), got to be careful. Mbappe weaving, through - deflected, shot it through on the far side. And France has their second...

MA: You can't avoid it. The World Cup is everywhere right now and is almost coming to an end. There have been winners and losers, redemption and heartbreak. Wailin, have you been watching any of this drama?

WONG: So admittedly, I am not, like, a big sports watcher. I did catch some of a game at a Chinese restaurant. It was playing...

MA: By accident.

WONG: ...On the TV, like, behind our table, right in my line of vision. But I do take pleasure in seeing how much joy everyone else gets out of the World Cup. I understand what a big deal it is.

MA: Oh, yeah. Like, it's all my friends are talking about right now. So far, 32 teams have been whittled down to two - France and Argentina. And what these teams are playing for is not just national pride or the thrill of victory or even a piece of the $440 million prize pool. Whether they realize it or not, they're also playing for their national economies.

WONG: Oh, high stakes.

MA: Yeah. So here's why I bring it up. One way to measure an economy is to look at its gross domestic product - right? - its GDP - basically the value of all the goods and services produced in a given time. And recently, this economist from the University of Surrey in the U.K. looked at how GDP changed for countries that won the World Cup. So he took data going back to 1961 and basically analyzed the impact of winning the final versus not winning. And he found that the country's team who wins the finals sees its GDP grow an average of a quarter percent in the months after the victory. So that's my indicator of the week - a quarter percent.

WONG: A quarter percent? It's not nothing.

MA: I mean, it's a temporary bump - right? - for maybe, like, six months. But a quarter percent - just to give you a sense of, like, how much that could be - like, a quarter of a percentage point of the U.S.' annual GDP would be about $57 billion. So it's, like, not chump change.

WONG: Also, we're never going to win the World Cup. But it's interesting to think about.


MA: Right. So maybe that was a bad example. But it is interesting to see that this - for other World Cup winners, this is a real phenomenon. So any guesses as to what's going on there?

WONG: Is it a bump from both people in the country celebrating, like, going out to restaurants...

MA: Just, like, going out and celebrating and...

WONG: Yeah, like, celebrating...

MA: ...People are, like, buying rounds for everybody and...

WONG: Yeah, like, going out and partying - or then my other guess would be, does it give that country a bump in tourism? So you get lots of people coming to the country in the aftermath of winning the World Cup.

MA: So those are both interesting theories. And actually, it didn't come up in this paper. But what this author says is that when you look at the different components that add up to GDP - right? - we've talked about this before on the show. They are consumer spending, government spending, investments and net exports. And of those four basic pieces, the thing that seems to increase the most right after a country wins the World Cup is the exports piece.

WONG: Huh. So more people abroad are buying the stuff made by the World Cup winning country?

MA: People are, like, jumping on the bandwagon, and they're like, yeah, I want a Croatia soccer jersey, too. I mean, maybe. So the author doesn't specifically say that, but that is my guess is, like, maybe part of it is, like, the bandwagon effect. And people are, like, ordering, you know, jerseys for the winning team. You know, everybody suddenly wants to show how into Croatia they are.

WONG: That is very interesting. I mean, did the paper say anything about the countries that host the World Cup and what happens to those economies if you play host to the tournament?

MA: So it did. And it actually found no significant effect in the medium or short term for host countries, which echoes similar research they've done on the Olympics - right? - another humongous sporting event that generally loses money almost all the time. And what this suggests, I guess, about Qatar is it spent $300 billion getting ready to host the World Cup. Maybe it shouldn't expect a very good return investment on that.

WONG: Thank you, Adrian, for that indicator. And, you know, for people who are not planning to watch the World Cup finals this weekend, there is another huge piece of cultural entertainment you could spend your money on. And I am talking about "Avatar: The Way Of Water." This is the highly anticipated sequel to James Cameron's "Avatar." And the sequel reportedly cost about $350 million to make.

MA: Whew. I mean, that sounds like they - you're going to have to sell a lot of tickets to make that up.

WONG: Yes, especially in China, which goes back and forth with the U.S. as the country with the largest movie market. So it's a very important market for Hollywood. And that brings me to my indicator. It is 3,000. This is the number of preview showings that were planned in China for "The Way Of Water" according to industry trade publication Deadline.

MA: Wait. When did the original come out again?

WONG: The original came out 13 years ago, if you just want to feel extremely old. I've been wrestling with this fact all week, that "Avatar"...

MA: Yeah. It does not...

WONG: It's been 13 years.

MA: ...Seem like it was that long ago, but all right, if you say so.

WONG: I know. It's been 13 years. And it's, like, I bought my ticket to see "Avatar," and I freaked out about how late it was going to get out because I'm like, this is past my bedtime. I'm old now. I can't be out past 10 p.m.

MA: (Laughter).

WONG: But yes, I have my tickets because the movie opens this week in the U.S. and other countries, including China, where, by the way, the original "Avatar" 13 years ago was a huge blockbuster. The Chinese box office contributed to the original movie becoming the highest-grossing film of all time worldwide. It still has the record.

MA: Wait a second. So "Avatar" was the highest-grossing movie of all time, like, even more than, I don't know, like, "Titanic"?

WONG: Yes, even more than "Titanic," also by James Cameron - higher than any of these huge Marvel movies that have come out. "Avatar," the original, has made almost $3 billion worldwide, not adjusting for inflation. So that is the state of play for this juggernaut heading into opening weekend for "The Way Of Water." And like I mentioned, there were 3,000 early preview showings planned in China. These are, you know, like, sneak peeks ahead of the official opening day. But according to Deadline, only about 1,700 of these showings actually happened.

MA: Oh, that's weird. What is going on there?

WONG: Yeah. So Deadline had kind of a few ideas they floated. One is that, you know, in China, the government only recently started lifting its very stringent COVID restrictions. So a good chunk of movie theaters are still closed. And now there is a new spike in COVID cases in China. So understandably, a lot of people who might have gone to the movies probably didn't want to spend, you know, 3 hours and 12 minutes sitting in an enclosed space.

MA: What's interesting about this is that three years into the pandemic almost, Hollywood - you know, initially when everything was locked down, people were not going to the movie theaters. And that was probably hurting viewership. And they're sort of still dealing with that three years later.

WONG: Yeah. I mean, this is a huge tentpole movie. And I'm sure that there were hopes that this would signal the kind of return - like, the full return to normality. Like, open the floodgates; everyone's back at the movies worldwide. But that really might not be the case, especially with China still being, you know, a little bit dicey right now.

So, you know, earlier this week, Deadline projected that "Avatar" would gross almost a half billion dollars worldwide on opening weekend. And they said maybe 100 million of that would come from China. But then after seeing the numbers from their preview screenings, Deadline said, well, we're not sure the Chinese box office is going to be quite that high. So we'll have to wait until after this weekend to see how the numbers shake out.

MA: Hopefully, they make it available on streaming.

WONG: Get your 3D glasses ready to watch at home.


MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Corey Bridges and engineered by Katherine Silva. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR's a production of NPR.

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