Last week, the New York Times, along with The Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times, led with the news that James Cameron’s epic-in-blue had finally bested Titanic’s $1.84 billion to become “history’s highest-grossing film.” But no sooner had the Champagne corks been popped than other outlets stepped up to disagree: Forbes asked, “Is Avatar Really King of the Box Office?” pointing to Box Office Mojo’s list of domestic box-office winners adjusted for inflation, in which Gone With the Wind is No. 1 with $1.49 billion, Star Wars is No. 2 with $1.31 billion, The Sound of Music is No. 3 with $1.05 billion, and, at the time, Avatar languished at No. 26, just below Grease and The Lion King. (After this weekend it moved up to 21, right behind Fantasia.)
You could almost hear the wilting of light sabers across the land. “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.com, 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, prompting the angry riposte, “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 slavery, as these things do, and all hope of a consensus was lost.
The two lists seem written by different people. The first, with its preponderance of Pirates and Harry Potters, felt crafted by an amnesiac 9-year-old; the second, with classics like GWTW, Dr. Zhivago, and The Sound of Music, 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. "Counting box office revenues is an imperfect science," concedes Mojo's Brandon Graham, who points out that international figures are hard to find for any movie predating 1970. That alone tells you something. In the twenties and thirties, Hollywood’s overseas revenues hovered somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent. They started to grow after WWII, with the sole exception of the musical, which turned out to be one of the truly indigenous American art forms: Whenever the people up onscreen 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 percent of their revenue overseas. But it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening up of Asia, that things began to pick up speed. Jurassic Park made over 60 percent of its money overseas, and in 1994, Hollywood’s overseas revenues outstripped its domestic take for the first time. Accepting his Golden Globes for Avatar last month, James Cameron observed two truisms: (1) even the HMFIC serves as second in command to a full bladder, and (2) “What we do is we make entertainment for a global audience.” Cameron's film has made an astonishing 70 percent of its money abroad. Hollywood is no longer America's film industry; it is the world's TV set.
You don't have to be one of the fans painting their face a delicate shade of cerulean blue to find that an unignorable statistic. Clearly we need a list that addresses both inflation and overseas business, but with the overseas grosses of films like The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments a mystery, all we can do is estimate. In all probability, they made somewhere close to 30 percent of their money overseas, but let's be on the safe side and generously make it 36 percent — the same percentage reached by 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark.* Even with that deliberately highballed number, the top ten now looks like this:
1. Gone With the Wind, $2.984 billion
2. Titanic, $2.896 billion
3. Star Wars, $2.199 billion
4. Avatar, $2.039 billion
5. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, $1.897 billion
6. Jaws, $1.703 billion
7. The Sound of Music, $1.646 billion
8. Jurassic Park, $1.622 billion
9. The Ten Commandments, $1.544 billion
10: Doctor Zhivago, $1.463 billion
Finally: balance in the Force. Past and present in perfect equipoise. And James Cameron’s Avatar at No. 4, book-ended by Lucas and Spielberg. That feels about right.
* A note on figures: As Doc Brown says in Back to the Future II, “Please excuse the crudity of my model.” Adjusted worldwide figures were arrived at by working out the ratio of domestic to international revenues and applying that ratio to Box Office Mojo’s adjusted domestic figures. Where the percentage of domestic to international of older films was not known, we used Raiders' ration of 1.58, or 36 percentage.