This is a rant that seems far overdue. Every year, I am baffled by the hoopla surrounding the new “biggest opening weekend,” the “highest-grossing movie,” or the “biggest single day take” of some gargantuan new film. Avatar is dominating the press at the moment because it is poised to not only become the highest-grossing film of all time globally, but possibly surpass Cameron’s previous epic Titanic at the $600 million mark domestically. Avatar is a superb entertainment, and the most popular movie in cinemas right now no doubt, so all of this fervor should be well and good, except...Titanic came out 12 years ago, when ticket prices reportedly averaged $4.69 each!
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I direct your attention to http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm?adjust_yr=1&p=.htm, an at once jarring and exceedingly logical list of the actual biggest movies of all time. Number one? Why, it’s Gone With the Wind, of course. Followed by Star Wars, The Sound of Music, and E.T. Where does The Dark Knight, the second-highest grossing movie of all time stand? It’s at #27, just below Grease and Thunderball.
Seem strange? It may, at first, if you’re accustomed to hearing Pirates of the Carribean and Spiderman in every “biggest movies” discussion. (Set against the backdrop of history, however, Spiderman 2 was just slightly less popular than Blazing Saddles.) But if you look over this adjusted list, what quickly becomes evident is that nearly every one of these films is today a household name. They are familiar, because they were indeed popular. For a movie from 1959 to still be watched and talked about today, it had to be a huge smash at the time—as indeed #13 was. It was called Ben-Hur.
To me, looking over this adjusted roster of films just makes the kings of the unadjusted lists seem absurd. Are we really trying to say that the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies of the last ten years have been the most popular movies ever made? It sure didn’t seemed like it at the time. Aren’t cinemas today supposed to be suffering from satellite viewing and piracy anyway? Well, yes, in fact, they are, if you consider that an estimated 128 million people saw Jaws when it came out. How many tickets went out to viewers of the first Harry Potter film? About 55 million.
Of course each new year is going to bring a "biggest opening weekend" ever—the world keeps getting more expensive! Are the studio heads who are trumpeting their hundreds of millions of dollars really unaware that blockbuster opening weekends have been breaking records ever since the invention of the blockbuster opening weekend? In the end, surely it all comes down to marketing. "Biggest ever" sounds good. The reality is, when the playing field is leveled, each year very few if any movies do well enough to be compared with the most popular films of the last 100 years.
All of which brings us back to Avatar, and the ugly little truth that despite its domination of the box office for six weeks in a row (which Titanic did for 17), on a level 1997 playing field Cameron’s second epic has only made about $400 million domestically—still a long way from that $600 million mark. For those of us who remember Titanic, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. There is simply no way Avatar will have the legs that Titanic did; the latter actually made 14% more in its tenth week of release than in its opening week! Avatar, though a tremendous hit and undoubtedly one of the most popular films of the decade, has more in common with mega-opening, quick-dying blockbusters like Spiderman than all the headlines would let you believe. I think the next time we really have a new Titanic (or Star Wars or The Sound of Music) on our hands, it will be easy to tell: more than 130 million people—nearly a third of the entire country—will be headed to the movies.