The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Should 'Avatar' get an asterisk in the box-office record books?

January 28, 2010 | 12:57 pm

Everyone in the world in the past couple of days has been writing about how "Avatar" has now surpassed "Titanic" to become the highest-grossing film of all time. But most of the stories have left out the tricky part: You can only make the claim for "Avatar" being the all-time box office champ if you leave out a few prickly little particulars, like the ones my colleague Claudia Eller mentioned in a recent post: namely ticket price inflation, foreign currency fluctuations and surcharges on 3-D movie screens.

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So when is a box-office record really a record? And should "Avatar," like so many modern-day movies that have benefited from the steep rise in ticket prices, especially in the new 3-D era, carry an asterisk next to their name? After all, if we were writing about the all-time box-office champ in terms of actual ticket admissions, it would still be "Gone With the Wind," David O. Selznick's 1939 sweeping historical romance that has riveted moviegoers for generations. If you put together an all-time box-office chart, adjusted for inflation, "Gone With the Wind" remains the undefeated, unrivaled champion, having earned an astounding $1.45 billion in ticket sales over the years. As box-office guru, Hollywood.com's Paul Dergarabedian, told me yesterday: "You never want to say never, but that's a record that I don't think will ever be broken."

In an adjusted for inflation all-time box-office Top 10 (compiled by Dergarabedian), "Gone With the Wind" is the easy winner, with George Lucas' 1977 "Star Wars" in the No. 2 slot, with $1.26 billion in grosses, followed by 1965's "Sound of Music," 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and 1956's "The Ten Commandments."

Jim Cameron's "Titanic" comes in at No. 6 on the chart (with $955 million) while "Avatar" doesn't even come close to making the Top 10, with a mere $558 million in grosses. To give you an idea how different the adjusted gross box-office chart is from the all-time box-office chart we normally follow, "Gone With the Wind" doesn't even make the Top 50 all-time box-office leaders chart--the one that now has "Avatar" on top.

To say that the chart we normally use is weighted toward modern-day movies would be an understatement. When Dergarabedian compiled the all-time box-office chart (the one that is not adjusted for inflation), only 5 of its top 50 films were released before 1997--Lucas' original "Star Wars" trilogy, Spielberg's "E.T." and 1990's "Home Alone." The vast majority of films on the list were released in the past half-dozen years. But when you turn things around and check out the adjusted gross Top 10 list, it has only one film--"Titanic"--that was released in the past 30 years.

It feels as if something here is out of whack. To make a comparison with our other statistic-obsessed national pastime--baseball, of course--the movie industry's box-office charts look suspiciously like baseball's steroid-plagued all-time home run list. In most career baseball records, from pitching wins to hits to RBI's and even stolen bases, there are plenty of representatives in the upper reaches of the record book from both ancient and modern times. But in the all-time home run leaders, the Top 20 list is crammed with players from the Steroid Era--i.e., players who played most of their career in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s.

Baseball purists are pretty unhappy about this development, so much so that when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, many of the Steroid Era sluggers are being shunned. (Mark McGwire has 583 home runs, normally a number that would easily qualify a hitter for the Hall of Fame induction, but the St. Louis Cardinals slugger has barely earned 25% of baseball writers' votes since he became eligible for induction, not even close to enough votes for his selection.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "Avatar" or any of other modern-day box-office behemoths are unworthy of their money-making honors. But because of ticket price inflation, which has now quietly taken a giant leap forward, thanks to the extra dollars moviegoers are paying to see 3-D movies, the all-time box-office charts are even more heavily weighted than ever toward 21st century films. And with even more 3-D films in the pipeline, in a few years the top of the charts will be even more dominated by current films.

The solution? Why not switch over to box-office charts that are based on attendance, not grosses, which would give us a more realistic portrait of how many people actually saw a film, not just how much moola its studio made? I don't know about you, but when I think of how much cultural heft a film has, I'm more interested in how many people enjoyed the communal delight of being in front of the big screen, not simply how much money they had to pay to see it.

Photo: "Avatar" Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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