FEATURE: Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Box Office

4 02 2010

I don’t know if you have heard, but there is this little movie out in theaters now called “Avatar.”  It has been breaking box office record after box office record, every day stealing the top spot from movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Titanic.”

The past two weeks have brought a tidal wave of incredibly important titles for James Cameron’s motion capture epic.  On Monday, January 25, “Avatar” became the highest grossing film in overseas markets.  The very next day, it became the highest grossing movie worldwide.  On Tuesday, February 2, the day “Avatar” was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, it became the highest grossing movie ever at the United States box office.  (All three titles were nabbed from Cameron’s “Titanic.)

Before I delve into deeper analysis, I think some hearty congratulations are in order for James Cameron and everyone involved in bringing “Avatar” to the screen.  No matter what you thought of the movie, you have to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into making it.  The amount of money that it takes to pay for a movie ticket has skyrocketed to prices that have forced Americans to reconsider how often they go to theater.  As a result, watching movies on laptops, iPods, and video game consoles has soared.  “Avatar” has returned the urgency to getting full immersion in the theatrical experience, and James Cameron deserves to be raking in all the money that he is.

But does “Avatar” really deserve to be called the biggest movie of all time?  There are people who claim the system by which that claim is made is flawed.  What I want to do is introduce you to the system that the detractors swear by – the “adjusted” system – and let you decide what system you think is the best.

Simply put, the adjusted system measures a movie’s box office not by the amount of revenue that it brings in, but rather by the amount of tickets sold.  The domestic gross of a movie is how much in cash the movie brought in.

The formula to get a movie’s adjusted gross is as followed:

1. Divide the domestic gross by the average ticket price the year that the movie was released.

This gives you the number of tickets sold in a year.

2. Multiply by the current average ticket price.

This number is what the movie would have made had it been released this year.

Let’s do an example. Throwback to math class.

“GoodFellas,” one of my all-time favorite movies, made $46,836,394 in 1990.  The average ticket price that year was $4.23 (now it is at $7.61…ouch).  After some division with my calculator, I discover that the movie sold a little over 11 million tickets.  In 2010, that would mean a box office take of $84,261,219, a gross comparable to “Hannah Montana: The Movie.”

Box office speculators often make a big fuss over the $100 million mark, a common indicator for success.  2009 was the biggest year for $100 million in history – according to the domestic system.  But in previous years, it has taken more total tickets sold to hit that mark.  In 2009, it took over 13.3 million tickets to make $100 million.  But in 1990, when “GoodFellas” was released, it took well over 23.6 million tickets to make the same amount.  After a little bit of math, I discovered that it only took $55.6 million in that year to make the equivalent of $100 million.

According to the adjusted system, “Avatar” is not number 1.  With a gross of $603 million, it has yet to even crack the top 20.  The #1 movie is “Gone with the Wind,” which made the modern equivalent of nearly $1.5 billion.  It reached such an astronomical gross because it played for years in American theaters.  And yet on the domestic chart where “Avatar” ranks #1, “Gone with the Wind” is one $200 million movie away from being knocked out of the top 100.

And a completely unrelated note to the systems, “Avatar” has benefitted from premium prices for 3-D and IMAX.  When I saw it in IMAX 3-D, my theater charged me double the average ticket price in 2009.  There is no efficient way to scale the premium tickets, so it becomes virtually impossible to discover exactly how many tickets the movie has actually sold.

So who is the true box office champion of the world?  James Cameron’s “Avatar,” or the endearing classic “Gone with the Wind?”  We don’t know the final sum of the former quite yet, but it certainly is exciting to be living in a time where we can remember one of the biggest movies ever made.



6 responses

7 02 2010

I am so happy that you brought this up in your blog!!! For years ticket prices have been getting more and more expensive, and year after year we have another “record.” Years ago I was watching “Gone with the Wind” on TV, I’m pretty sure it was on TCM, and before it started the guy said that to date it is one of the biggest movies of all time considering inflation. People always forget to consider inflation! The fact that you brought this up in your blog made my day!

7 02 2010

I personally think that it’s unfair to detract from “Avatar” simply because there are so many other factors not being considered. For instance, you mention the fact that “Gone With the Wind” played for years in cinemas nationwide, not to mention it’s not like “Gone With the Wind” had that much competition for the nation’s attention since the movie industry was still in its infancy.

8 02 2010

Interesting point to bring up about the lack of competition. And it is pretty remarkable that “Avatar” has managed to be the most popular movie for seven consecutive weeks as Hollywood threw more and more movies at American audiences. Nowadays, we consider it stunning if a movie can be the top dog at the box office more than one week.

But “Gone with the Wind” was met with parades in Atlanta upon its premiere; the governor of Georgia even declared the day of its premiere a state holiday. You didn’t see that with “Avatar.”

And by no means am I trying to detract from “Avatar.” Does “I think some hearty congratulations are in order for James Cameron and everyone involved in bringing “Avatar” to the screen” sound like I’m trying to strip away its luster? My intention was this post to use the movie’s extraordinary box office performance to highlight another way of looking at the biggest movies of all time. I hoped to present the two arguments in a way that allows readers to question what they think and then make a decision for themselves.

8 02 2010

Sorry, I wasn’t referencing you in particular, I just meant people who attempt to sort of downplay the achievement. I agree, “Gone With the Wind” was kind of on its own level in a lot of ways. I’m just not necessarily ready to declare anything the best or even highest grossing because of all the confusion, it’s probably better to consider things in the lenses of different eras.

8 02 2010

I do find it interesting that while “Avatar” is the highest grossing movie of this most recent era of filmmaking, it really hasn’t entered pop culture in as massive of a way as I had expected. I have yet to hear anyone quote the movie, nor has the emotional song caught on – maybe Leona Lewis just doesn’t have the same draw as Celine Dion.

Again, not detracting (and not just a note for you, but to anyone who might reading). Just pondering.

9 02 2010

Well, I think that Leona Lewis song is awful personally. I honestly felt it was a tacky way to end a great movie. I didn’t like my heart will go on either, but that at least felt more natural for the movie it was in. Also, just a sidenote, I quote “Avatar” a lot, haha. I can speak a little Na’vi, which I guess is sorta sad. However, I think you’re right, people like it a lot clearly, but it doesn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Then again, did people really quote “Titanic” that often besides Leo saying “I’m king of the world.”?

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