As “Avengers: Endgame” crushes everything in its path, it’s already broken box-office records. It’s the top domestic and global release of 2019, and reached the $2 billion worldwide mark faster than any film in history. But when it comes to claiming the biggest-ever box office, that means contending with the adjusted gross.
It could be so much simpler. Money is a plastic concept (and we don’t mean credit cards). Ticket prices vary; time creates inflation. The calculus that remains unchanged is 1 ticket buyer = 1 seat; if we tracked admissions instead of grosses as a metric of success, there wouldn’t be any discussion. Billboard tracks music by units sold; so does the New York Times’ best-sellers lists.
But that’s not the way Hollywood does it. The argument over box-office bragging rights stretches back to “Gone With the Wind,” which set the standard with its $189 million domestic initial gross. As other blockbusters followed — “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “The Sound of Music” — they each inspired passionate debate. At the time, the perspectives were especially murky because there was no box-office tracking; there were only studio-reported year-end film rentals, which could be reverse engineered to estimate grosses.
The transition to reporting gross totals rather than rentals began to evolve in the late ’60s, paralleling the industry’s transition to initial wide releases. By the time “Jaws” came out in 1975, reporting grosses became standard. Monday reporting of weekly grosses didn’t arrive until the early ’80s. Feverish attention to opening weekends followed; today, Comscore taps directly into theaters to create real-time reporting.
So when it comes to historical box-office records, we’re left with a reality distortion field. Let’s take “Gone With the Wind” as a comparison — the novel, not the movie. Macmillan published the Margaret Mitchell epic June 30, 1936, at $3 each (a then-unprecedented price). By the end of the year, it had sold 1 million copies, for $3 million. Currently, the New York Times lists the best-selling novel as Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing” (published in August 2018), which has a list price of $26. To earn as much as GWTW, it would need to sell only 115,000 copies.
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So, despite the spectacular early performance of “Endgame” (currently $2.294 billion worldwide), it will not surpass worldwide ticket sales of “Titanic,” which, based on the closest possible estimates, holds the record for most tickets sold in film history at approximately $3.8 billion worldwide — adjusted, of course.
But what about the internet?
Those who believe adjusted figures shouldn’t matter do bring up an intriguing point: Released in 1997, “Titanic” didn’t have to contend with the pervasive culture glut that’s now standard issue for even the biggest movies. So let’s look at the contexts of how each film made its fortunes.
Theater Attendance vs. Population
When “Titanic” was released in 1997, theaters saw 1.4 billion domestic admissions. In 2018, that number was 1.3 billion, and 2019 has shown further decline to date. That means “Endgame” is succeeding in a tougher climate. On the other hand: While ticket sales have declined 7% since the release of “Titanic,” the North American population has increased by about 11%.
The internet vs. the internet
Here’s the most salient point that can be made for “Endgame” operating at a disadvantage: When “Titanic” opened, streaming and bingeing weren’t part of the entertainment vocabulary. We now can see movies at home sooner, and with better quality, than we could in 1997. Although there was home video, the then-recent addition of DVDs, and cable, broadcast TV provided the most competition; “Seinfeld” was the top-rated show with just under 40 million weekly viewers. Today, the most viewed is “The Big Bang Theory,” with only half as many.
However, the internet cuts both ways. Social media now directs interest in movies, increasing awareness and interest beyond the more analog means of print and TV advertising, and talk show appearances. Then there’s online ticketing, which means no one has to wait in line, worry that they won’t find a good seat, or go to a show and find that it’s sold out.
More, and more attractive, theaters
“Titanic” opened in 2,711 theaters and didn’t rise to over 3,000 until its ninth week. It opened at Christmas, at a time of peak competition; with an even longer running time than “Endgame,” it had trouble getting multiple screens in its initial weeks. “Titanic” likely had at most 5,000 total screens when it opened.
“Endgame” opened in 4,622 theaters, with other studios clearing the decks in anticipation of its dominance. It had no trouble claiming screens; with some theaters playing it around the clock, it opened on about 15,000 screens. And moviegoers can now expect niceties like stadium seating and premium sound — elements that moviegoers rarely experienced two decades earlier.
The international market explosion
When “Titanic” earned 70% of its gross from overseas markets, it became the movie that alerted Hollywood to the dominance of the international marketplace. Currently, “Endgame” is tracking at 72% international, but it now benefits from an explosion of thousands of new, top-quality theaters across the globe as well as the opening of marketplaces that were previously unavailable.
By comparison, “Endgame” has grossed over $575 million in China since it opened April 24, two days before it opened in North America; “Titanic” saw a limited release in China in April 2018, four months after its domestic opening; at the time, it grossed $44 million.
Adjusted estimates: imperfect, but still the best option
Adjusting grosses for inflation is an imperfect science. It still requires context and discussion to create meaningful box-office analysis — but it’s vastly more accurate than relying on gross totals from different times that had vastly different actual sales.