The Box Office Conundrum: Part 3

In the previous article, I basically took the raw data and compiled it into a chart for ease of reading.  Today, I am going to analyze that data and interpret it.

The first chart shows total box office gross.  The is the most common metric used by Hollywood to declare a movie’s success.  Twenty two of the twenty five entries on this chart are either sequels, prequels, remakes, or part of a franchise.  Avatar is technically the first installment in a series, so we are not going to count it among the franchises,  bringing the number to twenty one.  That is 84% of the top twenty five films.  A Hollywood producer will look at that list and conclude that the best success is to copy something that works and repeat it over and over.  But as I’ll soon demonstrate, that is a fallacy.

Next we have the more relevant data.  The top twenty five films  in terms of gross adjusted for inflation.  Not only do the big contemporary blockbusters not make it to the top, but they are laughably low on the list.  In fact, only Star Wars: A New Hope, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Titanic, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avatar, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Lion King, and Jurassic World make both lists.  Only five of the films are sequels, prequels, remakes, and/or part of a franchise (excluding first installments like A New Hope).  Only three of the films are from the last decade.  These numbers paint a very different picture.  Instead of finding a formula and sticking with it.  The top grossers here are all individually unique.  They each brought something to the silver screen that had not really been there before.  In short, innovation is the best metric to measure success.  If the Hollywood execs looked at these figures instead of simply box office gross, they might conclude their current method is flawed and resulting in an unsustainable business model.

Finally, we have my personal favorite.  This chart takes the budgets of the films, accounts for inflation, and then compares the net profit by dividing the adjusted gross by the adjusted investment.  I’m sure a lot of my friends will consider this too much of a bean-counting method to making films, as it is an art form first and foremost.  I agree, but it is also important to remain considerate that cinema is a business, too.  So I took the top 10 films from each list and came up with the third chart.  I thought it was fascinating.  I started with the top grossing.  The rate of returns were impressive, ranging anywhere between 173% (keeping in mind this is Infinity War and it is still selling tickets) to 457%.  That is a serious return on investment (ROI).  I was beginning to think I might be wrong in my initial assessment.  Surely, these older films would, at best, match such impressive ROIs.  I could not have been more wrong.  The top ten from the adjusted for inflation list had unbelievable profits, ranging from 965% at the lowest to 4,766% at the highest.  I was absolutely flabbergasted by this.

So what is the takeaway?  While yes, the amount of profit is impressive in these older films, I think it is important to point out another metric, the year.  It is true that Gone with the Wind made the most profit, but what years had the most representation on these lists.  I would point to the mid 1960’s to the end of the 1970’s.  There are numerous films from this period that make a distinct impression on all of the lists.  This period is also colloquially known as the Hollywood Renaissance.  See if this sounds familiar.  It occurred after a bloated Hollywood failed to make much profit from their big budget films.  Budgets were exploding and box office takes were decreasing.  Some of Hollywood’s biggest failures came from the time just prior to the Hollywood Renaissance.  The film makers that rose to prominence during this era, did so by bucking traditional Hollywood norms and making unique films that showcased their originality.  Jaws, The Graduate, The Godfather, Bonnie & Clyde, and Midnight Cowboy are just a few examples of these films that define the movement.  Midnight Cowboy, especially, as it was quite commercially successful despite its X rating, which was considered a death sentence at the box office.

The lesson to be learned is that originality, and not a bloated budget or a formulaic approach, is the key to success.  I am a fan of comic book films.  But if Marvel and DC continue to fail at innovating, they may very well be responsible for the collapse of the current system and the rise of a new one.

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