When is a box-office record really a record?
That's a question worth pondering as "Avatar" becomes the No. 1 all-time box-office movie -- and a question that's likely to come up more frequently in the future. And I think it suggests that maybe it's time to change the way the industry ranks movies in box-office charts.
As our box-office experts in Company Town have noted, "Avatar," like so many modern-day movies, has benefited from the steep rise in ticket prices, especially in the new 3-D era. So should "Avatar's" box-office numbers -- as of Thursday its gross is $1.917 billion worldwide and $564 million domestic -- carry an asterisk?
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 this week: "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 of 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 make even 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 (that is not adjusted for inflation), only five 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 last half-dozen years. But turn things around and check the adjusted-gross top 10 list, there's only one film -- "Titanic" -- that was released in the last 30 years.
It feels as if something 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, including pitchers' victories, hits, RBIs and even stolen bases, there are plenty of representatives in the upper reaches of the record book from the historic and modern era. But among all-time home run leaders, the top 20 list is crammed with players from the steroid era -- i.e., players whose majority of careers were during 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 former St. Louis Cardinals slugger, who recently admitted to steroid use, has barely earned 25% of baseball writers' votes since he became eligible for induction, far short of what's needed for admission.)
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "Avatar" or any of the other modern-day box-office behemoths are unworthy of their money-making honors. But because of ticket price inflation, which has 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 more 3-D films in the pipeline, in a few years the top of the charts will be more dominated by current films.
The solution? Why not switch 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.