The year of the rabbit is already proving golden as January kicked 2023 off with a bang. The first month of 2023 generated an impressive $3.6 billion in worldwide box office worldwide. That makes it the highest grossing single-month globally since December 2019.

Several key factors contributed, including AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER’s remarkable holdovers and a prosperous Chinese New Year revitalizing the Chinese market.

The global box office is 8% above the three-year pre-pandemic (2017-2019) average for January. The result doubled last year’s result for the same month. However, these comparisons are inflated by the extremely lucrative Chinese New Year (CNY) being mostly in February in the comparable periods, but fully in January this year.

The International market (excluding China) achieved the 2nd highest grossing month since January 2020 with $1.57 billion, just -1.5% behind July 2022 and marginally ahead of December 2022 (+1%). The month came in -15% below the average box office of the last three pre-pandemic years in the same period. That is a significant improvement on the -29% recorded for the whole year of 2022.

The strength of the International results are in its breadth. For the first time in nearly three years all of the 30 territories tracked in Gower Street’s weekly global State Of The Market report reached at least Stage 3 on Gower Street’s 5-Stage Blueprint To Recovery in a single play-week. A box office play-week equivalent to the lowest grossing play-week of 2018-2019 was crossed by all of our tracked markets in the play-week commencing December 30. For the four full play-weeks within January, 28 of our tracked territories crossed on average and as median at least Stage 3 on a weekly basis. This is the 2nd best result of the pandemic, behind July 2022 with 29. This is an important landmark in the long recovery process.

On this month’s Global Box Office Tracker (GBOT, above), the stacked bar graph on the left shows total box office levels split out by the three key global markets: Domestic, China and International (excluding China). The pie chart indicates the current deficit compared to the average of the past three pre-pandemic years (2017-2019) and where those losses are currently coming from. The bar graph on the bottom right displays the percentage drops globally.

As in December, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER was clearly the biggest movie at the global box office in January. It added approximately $820m within the month for a total of $2.13 billion. It is already the #4 movie of all-time globally, just behind James Cameron’s own TITANIC’s at $2.2 billion. It has the same rank Internationally and is #10 in the Domestic all-time list.

Also doing well in January was another belated sequel, PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH. DreamWorks Animation’s latest film added approximately $217 million within the month for a cume of $341 million with releases in UK/Ireland (Feb. 3) and Japan (Mar. 17) to come.

Horror M3GAN was the first 2023-released global breakout, which generated approximately $149 million in January. Additionally the more older skewing comedy-drama A MAN CALLED OTTO achieved a respectable $73 million. Multiple major international markets will release the Tom Hanks title in February and March.

The outstanding market in January was of course China with a share of 40% from the global total. Since March last year China had been in a box office slump. Covid-19 and it’s tackling policies weighed the market down to different degrees over that period. CNY – historically the most lucrative theatrical week of the Chinese calendar – catapulted this January to the 3rd highest monthly result of the pandemic. Just marginally behind last February (-3%, $1.5bn) and February 2021 (-17%, $1.8bn), the highest grossing Chinese month of all-time.

The 7-day CNY period from January 21-27 generated an impressive Ұ6.76 billion ($994m). This was the 2nd biggest CNY holiday week on record, coming in -13% behind the record-breaking 2021, but +12% ahead of last year and also well ahead (+15%) of CNY 2019.

A phalanx of tentpole releases secured the recovery of the Chinese market. Historical drama FULL RIVER RED was the top performer grossing $509 million in the month. This was followed by sequel THE WANDERING EARTH 2 ($413m) and the latest in the BOONIE BEARS animated franchise – a CNY tradition – BOONIE BEARS: GUARDIAN CODE ($153m), which scored the best result in the franchise to date. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER added another $100 million to a total of $237 million now. That makes it the highest grossing import title of the pandemic and currently already #11 in the all-time import titles ranking. Additionally World War II drama HIDDEN BLADE grossed $95 million in January and animated film DEEP SEA came in with $76 million.

Of the International total (excluding China) again over half (56%) of the month’s box office was contributed by Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). The region recorded the highest grossing month since January 2020 with approximately $881m. This was just -13% down on the three-year average (2017-2019) for the same period and was up +60% against January 2022.

The region was carried by strong performances in multiple major markets. Germany saw its highest grossing monthly result of the decade, +8% ahead of December 2022, the previous high. It was +10% above the average of the last three pre-pandemic years! The outstanding result of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER mainly pushed the territory up with a 54% market share in the month. The sequel is now the 2nd highest grossing film ever in Germany. Germany is currently the #4 territory globally for the release.

The Netherlands recorded its highest grossing month since January 2020, up +12% on the three-year average (2017-2019). Beside of a strong performance for AVATAR, local comedy DE TATTA’s was the clear #2 title of the month.

Additionally, Italy achieved its 2nd best month since January 2020, while France recorded its 3rd highest and Spain its 4th highest grossing month since February 2020. In all of these three markets AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER was also the dominant release.

That can’t be said about Russia, where the AVATAR sequel did not release due to the ongoing studio boycott of the country following last year’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the local live action family film CHEBURASHKA, based on a popular Soviet-era character, is breaking all records. It already grossed $80 million after releasing January 1st. That is currently 59% ahead of the #2 all-time title in the market AVATAR (2009)!

Compared to EMEA, Asia Pacific (excluding China) had a slightly bigger gap against the three-year pre-pandemic average with -17%. It ranked #6 within the highest grossing months since January 2020 and grew +40% from the same period last year.

Japan had another solid month, being only -6% below the three-year average. The market was topped by the two local holdover blockbusters: THE FIRST SLAM DUNK and SUZUME, followed by AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. The leading title already accumulated $70 million locally. In January the manga- based basketball anime has been passed successfully to other Asia Pacific markets. It collected over $30 million combined in South Korea ($17m), Taiwan ($11m) and Hong Kong ($5m).

In Taiwan THE FIRST SLAM DUNK was the #1 title of the month, ahead of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Leading to a monthly result +29% above the three-year pre-pandemic average and the 4th highest grossing month of the decade.

In Hong Kong the Japanese import ranked a strong #3 in the month. Local courtroom drama A GUILTY CONSCIENCE took the top spot ahead of AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. That pushed the market up +32% against the three-year pre-pandemic average and to the 2nd highest grossing month since the start of the pandemic.

Latin America had the highest grossing month since July last year and the 5th highest since January 2020. It was up +12% on the prior month, +56% up on the same month last year. Still -18% below the three-year pre-pandemic average, marginally more than Asia Pacific (excluding China).

In comparison to the International regions the Domestic performance in January was weaker. The monthly gross of $591 million was just #9 among all months since February 2020. It was -35% below the three-year average. Nevertheless, it was an improvement of +51% on January last year. As in most markets AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER contributed the majority (38%) of that amount, adding $223 million for a $625 million total. The AVATAR result was not big enough to overcome the very limited number of titles the box office spread across that month. Just two other titles grossed more than $50 million dollar in January with PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH ($87m of a $143m total) and M3GAN ($83 million). Only 8 titles had a monthly result of more than $10 million, this is the 2nd lowest number of the last 12 months, just ahead of the 6 in the prior month and on par with March and October 2022.

From an international perspective 2023 began on a high note. However, a single record month is unfortunately not the finishing line on the road to recovery. The last time we had a new global record month, in July last year, it was followed by a month-long period with a weaker release calendar leading to a regression of the recovery. For the upcoming months the release schedule looks better in comparison but still appears a bit thin compared to pre-pandemic levels. A constant flow of attractive product is key to re-establish the habit of going to the cinema sustainably. January illustrated where the global box can be if a diverse and attractive slate is on offer. Blockbuster releases lifted whole markets and brought the theatrical experience back to the minds of a wider audience. A reminder of potential for the months to come.

A version of this article appeared on Screendollars Feb. 5.

Figures shown in this article also featured in Screendaily‘s global box office round-up, published Feb. 6.