The Big Picture

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

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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what about factors that affect movies today like piracy, internet, HDTV, video games, social networking, DVDS, Cable, Movies on demand, didn't that put a dent into movie going attendance, if you're going to use inflation, i don't see gone with the wind doing that if people had all these options now. you have to be fair

and what about more competition from other movies and movies dont stay in theaters for long, and gone with the wind had alot of re-releases

its the fact that people are willing to pay extra to see avatar makes it phenomenal

Calculating attendance is all well and good, but should we be including the first run of a film or multiple releases in that analysis. I mean, Gone With The Wind is No. 1 because it was re-released a hundred times. What movies like The Sound of Music and Titanic have done in attendance is far more extraordinary.

Yes we should use the ticket numbers to decide on who wins the race at the top spot for films released. Or perhaps on how many weeks a film spends at no.1 at the box office.

Avatar is an amazing film when all is said and done and deserves to be no.1, it really hacks me off that all these stories about 'does Avatar deserve this and that' come out after it has done so well.

Stop being so cynical and enjoy the fact that this film is a phonomenon.

Avatar has only been out 40 days. Im pretty sure the movies ahead of it in attendance were out a bit longer than 40 days. Avatar will end up top 15 in ticket sales, ahead of return of the jedi. It will also be ahead of every single movie of the past 25 years except Titanic. Way to distort reality to belittle an achievement.

"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"

It's difficult to gauge cultural heft from the number of tickets sold.... If we think about the audience of a movie, we shouldn't really exclude nontraditional viewing channels like DVD viewings in home theaters which are cheaper but far more popular than theatrical viewings. DVD revenues were twice as much as theatrical revenues in 2004. (Piracy is another matter, but shouldn't really count.)

I have a problem with the Gone with the Wind analogy, because it was initially shown on tours, and then it's been continuously showing over a four year period in theatres back when television was not available and the revenue numbers are based on repeated showings over a half century.

Of course there are more people now, so more potential attendees.
Of course there are more things competeing for the entertainment dollar now.
Of course there are DVDs, internet streaming and cable now - making it easier to wait for the movie to arrive at home on your own big screen.
So there are a lot of factors to consider.
But tickets sold (not dollars of those tickets) seems to be a fair enough comparison.

All time box office charts need to be adjusted for the inflation of the dollar, not the ticket price. Even though Avatar is in 3D, people are paying the extra amount instead of seeing cheaper 2D options. Also older movies were rereleased multiple times while being compiled into one run on most charts based on attendance.

I'm getting really sick of these columns questioning the financial success of Avatar when it's clear the authors have never taken a single economics course before. Increased ticket prices result in lower demand. Yes, account for inflation. No, not for 3-D. This is a stupid argument.

Movies like Gone With The Wind and Star Wars came along before movies migrated to DVD. Wouldn't that have to be factored in before one could compare the two?

If you evaluated GWTW so that we ignored its sales after the time it would have been out on DVD and out of the theaters in today's business model, would it still hold the record?

If someone paid you $558 million with an asterisk on the bills, would you care?

 
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