Why Box Office “Records” are Meaningless

An Editorial

Over Memorial Day weekend, the news media announced that The Hangover, Part II set a new box office record for ticket sales in the United States the first five days after release, earning $137.4 million. The previous holder of this record was The Matrix Reloaded, with $134.3 million.

Did you notice something about that record? Here’s some more info for you: Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides had the fourth-largest international debut.

The current record holder for largest debut is 2008’s The Dark Knight, taking in $155.3 million.

When it comes to grand total box office sales, the all-time high is Avatar, which took in nearly $2.8 billion.

Also known as "Pocahontas with cat-people".

Read the list of all-time greatest box office gross, and you’ll see that it is just filled with recent films. At #2 is Titanic; #3 is Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and #4 is Toy Story 3.


The first movie on the list from before 1990 is the original Star Wars, at #29. Even Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is higher than that (at #19).

Apparently bigger than Star Wars

Have you noticed the pattern yet? All of the highest-grossing movies were released recently, and many of them are parts of franchises released in the past few years. What is going on? Are audiences clamoring to see yet another installment of Transformers or Shrek?

Hollywood certainly seems to think so. The theaters in the past few years have been flooded with sequels, reboots, remakes, more sequels, sequels of reboots, and of course a bajillion comic book movies. While this is not all bad – I loved both Iron Mans, the two latest Batman movies, Thor and the latest Star Trek incarnation – it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Just yesterday when I went to see Thor, I saw a giant movie poster for a Shrek spin-off: Puss In Boots. After we had all been assured by Dreamworks that they were done with Shrek movies.

What is happening is what I call “Griffith’s Law of Hollywood”. As the cost of making a big, blockbuster movie goes up, the amount of risk Hollywood studios are willing to take goes down. It is safer to make a sequel to an established brand name with a guaranteed minimum audience than to risk hundreds of millions on building a new movie from scratch.

Sure, occasionally movies like Avatar and Inception will make all kinds of money, but then you have movies like Pandorum that clearly were meant to be the start of a new franchise but didn’t make the box office figures to merit any sequels.

So far, “Griffith’s Law” seems to be doing well for Hollywood; they are setting all kinds of records almost every weekend in the summertime. Or are they?

Yes, most of the highest-grossing movies are recent films that made their millions off of a franchise that people recognized. But these figures do not account for a very simple, blatantly obvious factor.


Yesterday, when I went to see Thor, my brother and I paid $18 for our tickets. When I went to see The Dark Knight three years ago, two people were with me, and the tickets cost about the same amount. The price of a ticket three years ago is way more than it was ten years ago, and so on.

It makes sense, really. Someone once told me (I think it was when I took a class on advertising) in order to have a successful summer blockbuster, you need to spend $125 million to make the movie and another $125 million to promote it. This means that the big studios will be charging theaters more to carry films, and theaters will pass that cost to you, the moviegoer.

The problem is that this will completely muck with and skew the numbers for highest-grossing films. No wonder so many records are being set – it isn’t because audiences are desperate to catch a new Cars movie, it is because the people who are devoted fans of the franchise and will attend anyway will be paying more of their hard-earned cash for their tickets.

This is far from a minor oversight. Think about it from a business standpoint: those higher prices for tickets are not increasing Hollywood’s profits. They are paying the studio’s bills, but according to a study by Ernst & Young, from 2006 to 2010 the movie industry had the lowest profit margins in the media industry. Hollywood is barely breaking even.

Maybe Hollywood would be wise to see what has succeeded in the past, and use figures that have been adjusted for inflation. This way, they see what, over time, audiences have been willing to give up their disposable income for. With this one factor included, you get a completely different list.

Avatar is no match for Clark Gable.

  1. Gone With the Wind, $1.6 billion
  2. Star Wars, $1.4 billion
  3. The Sound of Music, $1.1 billion
  4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, $1.1 billion
  5. The Ten Commandments, $1.0 billion
  6. Titanic, $1.0 billion
  7. Jaws, $1.0 billion
  8. Doctor Zhivago, $976 million
  9. The Exorcist, $869 million
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, $856 million

Avatar doesn’t appear until number 14 on the list, two spots below The Empire Strikes Back, the first sequel on the list. The Dark Knight is waaaay down at #28.

It appears people are far more interested in original movies with a classic story, great acting, great cinematography, a stunning soundtrack, and memorable moments than a bunch of brainless action shlock that was made to pay the bills. So when you see headlines that the box office records have been broken – something that will probably happen several times this summer – ignore them. It is only part of Hollywood’s cycle of self-delusion. Just go see a movie that you will enjoy, and let the chips fall where they may.

2 Responses to Why Box Office “Records” are Meaningless

  1. Pingback: Novels, Movies and Songs that are Widely Misinterpreted « Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: An Open Letter to J.J. Abrams: Advice from a Trekkie « Cat Flag

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