The Adjustment Bureau: Box Office Perspective

Long story short: let’s make sure we keep some historical perspective on the contemporary box office.

Back in November, Variety did a small puff piece listing the top ten opening weekends of all time. The Avengers came in first place, with an astonishing grand total of $207,438,708, with Iron Man 3 trailing by over $40 million at $174,144,585. The top five is rounded out by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($169,189,427), The Dark Knight Rises ($160,887,295), and The Dark Knight ($158,411,483).

Aside from a testament of how lucrative the comic book and sequel game is, there are two more interesting factors at work here.

First, each of this films experienced a drop of more than 50%. Harry Potter’s decline was the worst, at over 72%.

For the second, let’s get some perspective by looking at the all time box office tally when adjusted for inflation. That’s a step analysts don’t, or won’t, take publicly when reporting on box office draws. Presumably, all the better to set records, my dear.

BoxOfficeMojo, an amazing site I highly recommend you check out for sheer data, gives us the following list of top 20 movies. Their tallies have been adjusted to reflect the estimated 2014 average ticket price of $7.96.

Rank Title Adjusted Gross Unadjusted Gross Year
1 Gone with the Wind $1,608,275,200 $198,676,459 1939
2 Star Wars $1,417,832,000 $460,998,007 1977
3 The Sound of Music $1,133,626,400 $158,671,368 1965
4 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $1,129,160,500 $435,110,554 1982
5 Titanic $1,078,376,800 $658,672,302 1997
6 The Ten Commandments $1,042,760,000 $65,500,000 1956
7 Jaws $1,019,507,400 $260,000,000 1975
8 Doctor Zhivago $988,118,200 $111,721,910 1965
9 The Exorcist $880,369,400 $232,906,145 1973
10 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs $867,640,000 $184,925,486 1937
11 101 Dalmatians $795,341,300 $144,880,014 1961
12 The Empire Strikes Back $781,517,900 $290,475,067 1980
13 Ben-Hur $780,080,000 $74,000,000 1959
14 Avatar $774,151,900 $760,507,625 2009
15 Return of the Jedi $748,712,900 $309,306,177 1983
16 Jurassic Park $731,698,800 $402,453,882 1993
17 Star Wars: Episode I $718,884,100 $474,544,677 1999
18 The Lion King $709,605,500 $422,783,777 1994
19 The Sting $709,577,100 $156,000,000 1973
20 Raiders of the Lost Ark $704,673,200 $248,159,971 1981

Right away, the table tells us three things:

  1. Gone with the Wind remains, inexplicably, the most successful movie to date, even though it’s a melodramatic piece of malarky.
  2. People underestimate the cultural influence of the Walt Disney Company at their own peril.
  3. The only movie from the last decade to have broken into the top 20 was Avatar (#14), which didn’t even make the cut on our list of top 10 opening weekends.

The Avengers shows up at #27, The Dark Knight makes a solid showing (and, if you only think about opening weekend tallies, a surprising resurgence) at #29, and it’s a steep curve from there.

All this information serves to illustrate an important point: the emphasis on breaking opening weekend and box office records doesn’t necessarily a movie is as ground-breaking as you want to think. Trends change, the way we value movies changes, and the way movies are created and distributed is always changing. The past, however, is always a strong tool for understanding the context of the present – and how that should dictate what happens in the future.