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Avatar just got dropped from Disney Plus — and the timing is incredibly suspicious

Avatar promo image with Jake and neytiri learning to shoot arrows
(Image credit: Disney)

It’s been a long time since Avatar hit theater screens, and with the sequel coming a lot of people might be thinking about a rewatch. Unfortunately, Disney has just taken one option off the table, removing the movie from the worldwide Disney Plus catalogue without warning. 

This was first noticed by What’s On Disney Plus (opens in new tab), and we confirmed Avatar is seemingly absent from the U.S. and U.K. Disney Plus catalogues.

In other words, if you want to watch Avatar between now and an indeterminate point in the future, you’re going to have to pay extra for it — Disney Plus subscription or not. It’s another example of the perils of not actually owning your content, since companies can effectively pull it whenever they feel like.

The question here is why Disney would do such a thing. With Avatar: The Way of Water arriving on December 16, you’d think the company would be pushing Disney Plus as the way to watch the movie. But we’re just over a month away from the original Avatar returning the theaters, with remastered visuals and audio, and this could be a tactic to push Avatar fans into theaters and earn Disney some extra box office revenue.

Avatar was one of the bigger gains following Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox back in 2019. The movie earned over $2.7 billion in its initial theatrical run according to Box Office Mojo (opens in new tab), and at the time there were four sequels in various stages of development. 

But Disney never got to see a penny of that revenue, or the extra $44.8 million earned following the 2011 Special Edition re-release.

This looks like a cash grab

It is not surprising that Disney would want to milk the first Avatar for everything they can, ahead of the sequel’s release. It’s not the first time Disney has done it either, with re-releases in 2020 (in Asian Pacific territories) and 2021 (China) earning a respective $1.2 million and $57.7 million. 

However, this will be the first time Avatar has been available in U.S. theaters in over a decade, and there’s no doubt Disney wants to earn as much as it possibly can. Especially since director James Cameron has gone to the trouble of remastering the movie (opens in new tab) with 4K resolution and a higher frame rate — the latter of which isn’t likely to look as good when you watch it at home.

There’s no doubt that the re-release is a cash grab, and there’s an appeal to being able to experience movies in a theater setting. You can’t get the same audio or big screen experience at home, no matter how good your home cinema setup is. Disney is offering an experience, and it’s one some people will no doubt be happy to pay for.

But that doesn’t change the fact that pulling Avatar from Disney Plus ahead of the re-release is a dirty tactic — assuming it has been done deliberately. It’s not the re-release itself that gets me, corporations are going to do whatever they can to boost revenue; it’s the fact Disney has seemingly removed choice from the equation.

Another recent example would be Sony and the PS Store. While the company stopped selling movies some time ago, early July saw it announce StudioCanal movies would be pulled from user accounts (opens in new tab) — movies those people had paid for. Sony blamed “evolving licensing agreements with content providers”. It is still unclear whether refunds will be issued or not when the change happens on August 31.

But considering Disney owns both Avatar and Disney Plus outright, this isn’t a case of contracts expiring and rights changing hands. The main benefit to companies operating their own streaming platforms, rather than selling to the likes of Netflix, is that the back-catalog should theoretically stay pretty static.

Sure, the Disney Plus version of Avatar may not be available in 4K, or any of the other improvements Cameron has added to the movie ahead of its re-release. But it was available to watch and enjoy as and when the viewer feels like it. It was also included as part of the $8 a month subscription, which is a fraction of the cost of a movie ticket. Especially considering inflation and the rising cost of living.

This is why Blu-rays are still viable

If you have Avatar on Blu-ray or DVD, there’s not a thing Disney can do about it. There is no 4K Blu-ray release, so it’s pretty much the same version you’d have found on Disney Plus, but the movie is yours. It’s not coming from a server, it’s playing off a disc that’s firmly in your possession. It has long been, and still is, the main benefit of purchasing physical media compared to digital and streaming platforms.

Of course, that is a pricey way to do it. The Avatar Extended Edition Blu-ray (opens in new tab) is currently $14 on Amazon, while the Theatrical Cut (opens in new tab) is $19. That’s significantly more than subscribing to Disney Plus, or the $5 it costs to buy a digital copy (opens in new tab)

That’s why streaming and digital purchasing are so popular. It’s cheaper and more cost-effective, and you don’t need to find a place to store all your cases and discs. Unfortunately it also puts consumers at the mercy of rights holders, who could and apparently will pull access if it doesn’t suit them.

All that hinges on Avatar’s removal being a deliberate act. Disney has got into a lot of hot water recently with various areas of the catalog. A censored version of Falcon and the Winter Soldier hit Disney Plus back in March (opens in new tab), while memorials were removed from Luke Cage and The Punisher for actor Reg E. Cathey and Marvel Legend Stan Lee (opens in new tab) shortly after both shows arrived on the platform.

According to Disney these changes were mistakes, and were restored to their original version. So Disney has a history of making strange changes to its catalog, only to roll things back after people notice. Right now it’s too early to say whether Avatar is one of those mistakes, and if the movie will be restored.

With streaming you don't own anything

But suspicious timing or not, the point still stands. The major danger about streaming is that your access to content can and will be pulled if the rights holder decrees. It doesn't matter whether the intention is malicious or if the whole thing was an IT mistake.

For now, anyone wanting to watch Avatar at home better have a copy on Blu-ray or some kind of digital format. Because we don’t know when the movie will be making its streaming comeback. I've reached out to Disney for clarification on the situation, and will update this story if we hear back.

Next: Mark Ruffalo says expect She-Hulk in the next Avengers movies, so read out She-Hulk review to see why it's a total SMASH! Plus, the Avatar re-release is here, and it includes a surprise post-credits scene

Tom Pritchard
Automotive Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's Automotive Editor, which means he can usually be found knee deep in stats the latest and best electric cars, or checking out some sort of driving gadget. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.