Feb 1, 2010

So is Avatar no.1 at the all-time box office or not?

So is Avatar the all time champ at the box office or not? Last week, the New York Times, along with the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, led with the story that James Cameron's epic-in-blue had bested Titanic's record to become "history's highest grossing film" — number one in a top ten that looked something like this:—
1. Avatar — $1,878m
2. Titanic
— $1,842m
3. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
— $1,119m
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
— $1,066m
5. The Dark Knight
— $1,001m
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
— $974m
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
— $961m
8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
— $938.2m
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
— $934.0m
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
— $925.3m
No sooner had the champagne corks been popped, however, than Forbes asked “Is Avatar Really King Of The Box Office?” pointing to Box Office Mojo’s list box office winners adjusted for inflation, which Gone With the Wind at number one.
1. Gone With The Wind — $1,485m
2. Star Wars
— $1,309m
3. The Sound of Music
— $1,046m
4. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial —
5. The Ten Commandments
— $962m
6. Titanic
— $943m
7. Jaws
— $941m
8. Doctor Zhivago
— $912m
9. The Exorcist
— $812m
10. Snow White And the Seven Dwarves
— $801m
You could almost hear the wilting of light sabers across the land. Avatar, meanwhile, was to be found languishing at number 26, just below Grease and the Lion King. “The whole Gone with the Wind analogy is a red herring,” protested Jade, at MTV.com. “I mean how many times did Gone With the Wind need to be re-released over the years for it to make what it did? Avatar did it within how many days?” Over at EW, the protests grew more strenuous: Scarlett O’Hara is the biggest sociopathic brat I have ever seen and I don’t get why other women like her” posted one. “Who cares about the past?” suggested another. “Are you for real? WHO CARES ABOUT THE PAST????? Are you sane???? The past is a VITAL PART of what we are, who we are.” Then the discussion turned to the demerits of of slavery, as these things do, and all hope of a consensus was lost. The two lists seem written by different people — the first by an amnesiac nine-year-old, the second by your grandmother — and neither feels quite right. The first ignores inflation, thus favoring the present, but the second ignores overseas revenues, thus favoring the past. “The last two decades have seen the biggest growth in overseas revenues in Hollywood’s history,” says Box Office Mojo’s Brandon Graham, who is happy to concede that “Counting box office revenues is an imperfect science.” The reason Box Office Mojo ignores international figures is because they are hard to find for any move predating 1970, and nor did it matter. Back in the 20s and thirties, Hollywood’s overseas revenues hovered somewhere between 10% and 20%. In the aftermath of the Second World war, they took a boost, with the sole exception of the musical, which turned out to be one of the truly indigenous American art forms: whenever the people up on screen burst into song, Johnny Foreigner took the opportunity to take a leak. Things began to change with Jaws and Star Wars, summer blockbusters that gobbled up 40% of their revenue overseas, but it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening up of Asia, that thing began to pick up speed. Jurassic Park made over 60% of its money overseas, and in 1994, Hollywood’s overseas revenues outstripped its domestic ones. James Cameron may not have yet mastered the art of the graceful acceptance speech — taking his two opportunities at the Golden Globes to update us on the state of his bladder — but he said one true thing that night: “What we do is we make entertainment for a global audience.” Avatar made an astonishing 70% of its money abroad. You don’t have to be the kind of person who paints their face a delicate shade of Slushee-Grape blue to know that that’s an unignorable statistic. But how unify the two lists? In a perfect world we would wait until somebody discovered the lost treasure chest containing the overseas revenues of The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments, but even if we highball the number — 36%, let’s say, the same as Raiders of the Lost Ark — the actual list of all-time box office champs, both adjusted for inflation and including overseas revenues would look something like this:—
1. Gone With The Wind — $2,984m
2. Titanic
— $2,896m
3. Star Wars
— $2,199m
4. Avatar —
5. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial— $1,897m

6. Jaws — 1,703m
7. The Sound of Music — $1,651m
8. Jurassic Park — 1,622m

9. Ten Commandments — $1,544m

10: Doctor Zhivago — 1,463m

Finally: balance in the Force. Past and present in something like equipoise. And James Cameron’s Avatar at number four, book-ended by Lucas and Spielberg. That seems about right.

— my article about Avatar's box office for New York magazine

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