Box Office: A Historical Perspective

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know what a box office success Avengers: Infinity War has become.  It has broken the record for highest grossing opening weekend and is expected to break $1 billion in its second.  That is no easy feat at the box office.  I often have to remind people, that while it is true that these movies have done well, their box office total is hardly an effective measure of success.  Now I don’t mean to diminish the achievements of their film makers.  But box office totals do not adjust for inflation.  Nor do they account for the fact that ticket prices have risen at a level higher than inflation.  I am curious what people would say to a list adjusting box office totals for those.

The Question of Box Office

Unfortunately, it becomes difficult when you consider that movies have different formats now that come at different costs.  I don’t know of a way to determine the number of box office standard, 3-D, and premium tickets.  There may not even be a record of it.  So keep that in mind.  Here is the methodology for this article.  I will take some of the highest grossing films of all time and adjust them for inflation.  I’m then going to compare that number to the box office gross when adjusted for inflation.  The goal here is to determine what the most successful film of all time was in terms of its audience volume so we can see just how much farther Avengers: Infinity War has to go.  All data is being pulled directly from the kind folks over at Box Office Mojo.

The Facts about Box Office

FilmYearTicket PriceDomestic GrossAdjusted for Inflation
Avengers: Infinity War2018$9.16$257,698,183n/a
Star Wars: The Force Awakens2015$8.43$936,662,225$990,334,300
Star Wars: The Last Jedi2017$8.97$618,830,200$620,181,382
The Dark Knight2008$7.18$534,858,444$682,085,700
Star Wars: A New Hope1977$2.23$460,998,007$1,631,575,500
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial1982$2.94$435,110,554$1,299,385,700
Gone with the Wind1939$0.23$198,676,459$1,850,728,800
The Sound of Music1965$1.01$158,671,368$1,304,524,800
Snow White1937$0.27$184,925,486$998,440,000
Ten Commandments1956$0.50$65,500,000$1,199,960,000
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi1983$3.15$309,306,177$861,584,200

While I am not denying the success of Infinity War, the numbers do not look as exceptional as Marvel and Disney would lead you to believe.  After the exceptional opening weekend, predictions indicate the domestic gross reaching as high as $550 million when all is said and done.  In order to break the inflation adjusted level of the lowest film I looked into, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Avengers will have to make an additional $363 million domestically by the time it leaves theatres.  More than $1.5 billion to take the number one spot.

Now I agree that Infinity War is a success.  The entire MCU is a success.  They have done something that, prior to the release of X-Men in 2000, everyone thought was impossible.  I don’t take issue with them; I take issue with movie studios putting so much stock in box office grosses.  Movie studios frequently whine about diminishing theatre attendance.  And while their concerns are mostly based on unwarranted fears, any loss in movie attendance is really due to their own ineptitude.  Instead of measuring movie performance with a reasonable metric, they tie the success of any film to it box office gross.  As a result, every aspect of the industry, from the producer to the cashier at the concession stand, is focused on increasing box office grosses.

The end result is ticket prices sky rocketing, tiered movie going experiences, premium theatre prices, an increased take of the box office, theatres cutting corners to save on cost, the explosion of the advertising industry at the theatre, and so much more.  Basically, every bad aspect of movie watching can, at least in part, be attributed to this culture.  I suggest that a more effective measure of determining a film’s success is box office gross over budget, or box office gross adjusted for inflation, or number of tickets sold.

The Executive

These metrics would provide insight into not just what movies are successful, but why movies are successful.  Take a look at the ten top grossing movies un-adjusted for inflation.  You would see that seven out of the ten are all owned by Disney.  Only Titanic, Jurassic World, and The Dark Knight aren’t under the House of Mouse.  You would also see that eight out of the ten are apart of franchises.  A studio exec might look at these numbers and assume that the most successful films are Disney franchise movies.  And if you looked at the upcoming release schedule, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe that very conversation took place.

But when we look at those same numbers adjusted for inflation, a different picture appears.  Only one franchise film makes the list, and it was the first in the franchise.  Only three Disney properties make the list, and only one of those three was actually produced by Disney at the time.  The other two were purchased later on.  No, this list does not give us the same perception that the un-adjusted one does.  What we see here instead are films that innovated.  They were in many ways the first for their time.

So instead of that exec thinking franchise properties are the way to go, he might think taking risks with your movies is the path to success.  Instead of trying to create an environment where the movies you make don’t put as many butts in seats as you hoped so you simply create the illusion of success by promoting unsuccessful films, maybe you take a risk on a young director and do something original.

Adapt or Die

The folks over at Marvel have truly done something special.  There is no denying that.  But I worry that the path we are on is somewhat stagnant.  It is Darwinism, plain and simple.  The strongest and the fastest aren’t the best equipped to survive the universe.  It is the being that is best at adapting.  The only constant is change, and if you don’t adapt to that change you will surely die.  If there is one thing these MCU films do, it is stick to the formula.  That formula seems like brilliance incarnate right now, but, without adaptation, it will be the nail in the MCU’s coffin.  Otherwise that bubble will burst.

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