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John Scalzi – SciFi Movies Made Money Before Star Wars, Too

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Here’s a fun question I received:

“Did science fiction films do well financially before Star Wars? It seems like that’s when Hollywood realized scifi was big business.”

Well, to be sure, no one had ever seen a science fiction movie do business like Star Wars did: It made $300 million in its original release in 1977, back when the average ticket price was $2.23, as opposed to the $7.18 it is today. Adjusted for inflation, its domestic box office is more than $1.2 billion over several releases (as discussed previously here). It’s fair to say Star Wars got Hollywood’s attention.

However, it’s not fair to say that Hollywood never saw science fiction as a moneymaker before Star Wars, either — quite a number of science fiction movies did gangbuster business from the very start of the industry: The highest grossing film of 1916, for example, was a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That movie made $8 million at the box office, which adjusts to about $160 million today — a nice-sized hit in any year. For additional perspective, here are the adjusted domestic grosses of several pre-Star Wars movies.

Frankenstein (1931)
The classic Universal horror/science fiction flick was the number one box office hit in 1931, with a $12 million gross. Of course, in the days of the Great Depression, the cost of a ticket was less than a quarter — 23 cents, to be exact. So adjusting for inflation, Frankenstein raked in the equivalent of close to $375 million, which is a hit of historic proportions. No wonder Universal then cranked out a whole bunch of other monster movies in rapid succession.

Destination Moon (1950)
This movie, written by Robert Heinlein, was one of the first to attempt a realistic portrayal of men trying to get to the moon — “realistic” here making allowances for the relatively primitive special effects of the time, mind you. It made $5 million, which comes out to just under $70 million today, or in the neighborhood of last year’s remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, which made $80 million.

On the Beach (1959)
One of earliest movies to use a science fiction premise (nuclear apolcalypse! Everybody dies!) without actually advertising itself as science fiction — because Gregory Peck couldn’t possibly be in a science fiction movie, you see. Be that as it may, not only was the picture lauded for its intelligent portrayal of people dealing with the end of life as we know it, it also brought in the equivalent of close to $140 million. It will be interesting to see if The Road, a similarly-themed post-apocalyptic flick also not advertising itself as science fiction, comes close to these numbers when it’s released later this year.

Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Prior to Star Wars, this was science fiction’s one-two punch at the box office, and it was a pretty hefty combination: Planet of the Apes, helped by the star power of Charlton Heston, brought in $32 million — equivalent to $175 million today, and a sum no one would complain about. 2001, with its groundbreaking special effects and oh-so-serious weirdness, did even better: $56 million, or just over $300 million today, which would have put it at number four in last year’s box office list, just below the latest Indiana Jones flick. The two movies in fact helped spur a series of largely dystopic, serious-minded science fiction flicks, such as Silent Running and Soylent Green (not to mention, in the case of Apes, a bunch of sequels).

Logan’s Run (1976)
Really the last major science fiction movie before Star Wars hit, this one closes out the era that began with Apes and 2001. And how does it do in the box office? $26 million, which comes to about $87 million today. Not a blockbuster, but since it made three times what it cost to make, it was still a nicely profitable little flick that no one would complain about.

Which is to say that even before Star Wars, science fiction was adding nicely to Hollywood’s bottom line and even occasionally dropping a blockbuster or two. In other words, the Force is strong with this genre.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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