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Movie History – Box Office Benchmarks (They Never Last Long)

Critics and novices alike have opinions about movies, but when you’re looking for objective truth, the numbers don’t lie. One of the more tangible ways to evaluate movies over a long period of time is to compare historical box-office revenue results, although the effects of inflation can drastically skew things. And it’s best to take caution anyway — box-office figures are a tricky thing to count on when trying to measure a movie’s success. Here’s why:

Box-Office Benchmarks: A Moving Target
It used to be a major milestone if a film reached $100 million in domestic gross earnings. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is often cited as the first $100 million in domestic theatrical rentals. Now, $200 million is the new bar for a blockbuster, and the $100 million mark is only significant as an intermediary benchmark, as when Spider-Man (2002) became the first movie to pass the $100 million level in a single weekend, a record also soon surpassed. And for only the fifth time in all of movie history, a movie has reached $1 billion at the box-office (worldwide) — James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Prognosticators are now anxious to see which movies will break further benchmarks, and there may be clues from past top-performing examples, such as…

The Top 10 Box Office Hits of All-Time – Adjusted for Inflation
When adjustments for inflation are made, movies in the box-office Top 10 change dramatically, as the box office gross of a movie is entirely dependent on the price of a ticket, which has changed dramatically itself. (A quick summary of average ticket prices: 1930s: $.25 cents, 1940s: $.45 cents, 1950s: $.50 cents, 1960s: $.60 cents, 1970s: $1.55, 1980s: $2.70, 1990s: $4.25, 2000s: $5.40, Present: $7.35.) When inflation is taken into account, Paramount’s No. 1

unadjusted blockbuster Titanic (1997) drops to sixth place in the all-time Top 10 of Adjusted Domestic Grosses, while Gone With the Wind (1939) assumes the top spot. Movies in the Nos. 2 through 5 slots include: Star Wars (1977), The Sound of Music (1965), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956). Jaws (1975), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Exorcist (1973), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) round out the rest of the ten.

The Biggest Box-Office Hits by Decade
Way back in the 1930s, the top moneymaker was David O Selznick’s monumental Gone with the Wind (1939). The next decade’s top hit was Disney’s Bambi (1942), and similarly Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) dominated the one that followed. In the 1960s, the top movie is Fox’s musical The Sound of Music (1965), and then George Lucas’ phenomenal Star Wars (1977) in the ’70s. The most successful movies in the next three decades were Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), James Cameron’s hit Titanic (1997), and Cameron’s next feature film Avatar (2009).

Top-Earning Movies by Genre
Looking at movies by genre, the greatest disaster movie of all time is Titanic (1997), while the highest-grossing ‘horror’ movie is Jaws (1975). The most successful horror remake is The Ring (2002). The top computer-animated movie ever is PG-rated Shrek II (2004), and Saturday Night Fever (1977) topped Flashdance (1983) as the top dance movie.

As expected, the highest grossing live-action fantasy movie is Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). For comedy, the top pic is Home Alone (1990). The independent sleeper movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is the highest-grossing romantic comedy — and also holds honors as the top-earning movie to never reach No. 1 while in theaters.

The biggest ever 3D movie (a recent development) is, predictably, Avatar (2009), overwhelming its most recent competition. Two top-earning action movies were Transformers (2007) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) in addition to The Matrix Reloaded (2003). The top comic-book adaptation is PG-13 rated The Dark Knight (2008), and the most successful movie adapted from a video game is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) still remains the box-office leader for “creature” feature movies, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is the highest grossing documentary (non-IMAX) of all time. The No. 1 mockumentary is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006), and the recent The Blind Side (2009) has attained the top spot among sports-related movies; Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009) rules among concert movies. The most successful musicals (non-animated) are The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978) and Chicago (2002).

The top western hit of all time is Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), while Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) topped a number of successful war movies. Predictably, the greatest scifi feature of all time is Star Wars (1977).

The Most Successful Movie Franchises
The original Star Wars trilogy and its three prequels currently hold the No. 1 spot as the top-grossing (domestic) movie franchise. However, it is speculated that the Harry Potter movie franchise (six movies from 2001 to 2009) may eventually end up being the most commercially-successful movie franchise of all time, once new installments are released in the coming years.

Have a favorite box-office juggernaut? Rank the Top 10 biggest hits of all time.


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