In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Avatar's Onslought

So, Avatar is now the number one grossing movie, both domestically and worldwide, ever, even beating the unbeatable Titanic. It is being touted as the most successful movie ever. But is it?

Ticket prices and populations have been rising, so we would actually expect the record to be continually broken, and not because of a movie's quality. Someday, given infinite inflation, the worst performing movie will still outgross Avatar. (Ticket prices have risen 2000% in the past hundred years; at that rate of inflation, a hundred years from now patrons could be paying $20,000 per ticket. Hopefully the Bay Theater will reconsider its cash-only policy.)

If we really want to compare the success of movies in the United States, we need to ignore anything having to do with money, and only consider tickets sold per capita. Below I list the 100 movies who have sold the most tickets (source: Box Office Mojo), the U.S. population in the year of the movie's release (primary source: U.S. Census Bureau), and the tickets sold per capita.

Avatar has done well, selling tickets to 26% of the country's population. But that only ranks it 59th on the list, trailing behind such recent films as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (31%), Jurassic Park (33%), and Titanic (48%). Half the country saw Pinocchio. Three quarters saw The Ten Commandments. And not only did everybody see Gone with the Wind, but half of them saw it twice.

A lot of movies have been re-released over the years, which makes it a bit murky to determine the population to be used in the per capita. But even if we omit all the re-released films, Avatar is still only 35th in the ranking.

Avatar's greatest achievement is having reached its standing so quickly, in fewer than seven weeks. For contrast, The Phantom Menace had sold approximately 8 million fewer tickets by the same point in its run (source: The Numbers). If Avatar sells another 16 million tickets (possible), it will surpass The Phantom Menace.

I enjoyed Avatar, and am excited that it is performing so well, but let's not steal the thunder from the movies of the past.

RankTitleYearAdmissionsPopulationPer Capita
1Gone with the Wind1939202,044,600130,879,718154%
2Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs1937109,000,000128,824,82985%
3Star Wars1977178,119,600220,239,42581%
4The Ten Commandments1956131,000,000168,903,03178%
5The Sound of Music1965142,415,400194,302,96373%
6Doctor Zhivago1965124,135,500194,302,96364%
8E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial1982141,854,300231,664,45861%
11101 Dalmatians196199,917,300183,691,48154%
12The Exorcist1973110,568,700211,908,78852%
16The Bells of St. Mary's194562,745,100139,928,16545%
17The Empire Strikes Back198098,180,600227,224,68143%
18The Graduate196785,571,400198,712,05643%
19The Sting197389,142,900211,908,78842%
20Sleeping Beauty195972,676,100177,829,62841%
21The Robe195365,454,500160,184,19241%
22Mary Poppins196478,181,800191,888,79141%
23Return of the Jedi198394,059,400233,791,99440%
24The Best Years of Our Lives194655,000,000141,388,56639%
26Raiders of the Lost Ark198188,141,900229,465,71438%
27Around the World in 80 Days195664,615,400168,903,03138%
28The Greatest Show on Earth195260,000,000157,552,74038%
29The Godfather197278,922,600209,896,02138%
30The Jungle Book196773,679,900198,712,05637%
31Duel in the Sun194651,020,400141,388,56636%
32Sergeant York194148,123,200133,402,47136%
33Cleopatra (1963)196367,183,500189,241,79836%
34Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid196970,557,900202,676,94635%
37Love Story197069,998,100205,052,17434%
38Lady and the Tramp195555,734,900165,931,20234%
39Jurassic Park199386,205,800257,746,10333%
41The Bridge on the River Kwai195754,400,000171,984,13032%
42House of Wax195350,531,900160,184,19232%
43My Fair Lady196460,000,000191,888,79131%
44Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace199984,825,800272,690,81331%
45American Graffiti197365,714,300211,908,78831%
46Rear Window195450,354,700163,025,85431%
47West Side Story196155,970,300183,691,48130%
48Forrest Gump199478,545,600260,289,23730%
50Swiss Family Robinson196053,808,000180,671,15830%
51Lawrence of Arabia196255,383,600186,537,73730%
52The Lion King199477,231,800260,289,23730%
53Blazing Saddles197463,227,500213,853,92830%
54The Towering Inferno197461,375,700213,853,92829%
55Beverly Hills Cop198467,150,000235,824,90228%
56It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World196353,875,400189,241,79828%
57Home Alone199067,734,200249,438,71227%
58National Lampoon's Animal House197859,890,300222,584,54527%
61The Poseidon Adventure197254,902,000209,896,02126%
62Independence Day199669,268,900265,189,79426%
63Smokey and the Bandit197756,832,900220,239,42526%
66The Rocky Horror Picture Show197555,069,400215,973,19925%
68Close Encounters of the Third Kind197755,575,500220,239,42525%
69One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest197553,685,400215,973,19925%
70Back to the Future198559,050,700237,923,79525%
72The Dark Knight200874,282,100304,374,84624%
73Shrek 2200471,050,900293,638,15824%
75Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom198453,532,800235,824,90223%
76Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest200664,628,400299,398,48422%
77The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King200361,538,100290,796,02321%
78The Sixth Sense199957,579,100272,690,81321%
82Spider-Man 2200460,158,700293,638,15820%
83Mrs. Doubtfire199352,684,400257,746,10320%
84Men in Black199754,616,700267,743,59520%
85The Passion of the Christ200459,704,800293,638,15820%
86Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade198949,416,500246,819,23020%
87Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith200559,324,600296,507,06120%
88The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers200257,630,400288,125,97320%
89Top Gun198647,651,400240,132,88720%
90Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone200155,913,000285,226,28420%
91Finding Nemo200356,337,500290,796,02319%
92Terminator 2: Judgment Day199148,656,400252,127,40219%
93The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring200154,703,900285,226,28419%
94The Lost World: Jurassic Park199749,910,000267,743,59519%
95Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones200253,468,500288,125,97319%
96Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen200956,004,400307,006,55018%
97Toy Story 2199947,836,500272,690,81318%
98Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl200350,648,900290,796,02317%
99How the Grinch Stole Christmas200048,106,800281,421,90617%
100Spider-Man 3200748,914,300301,579,89516%


  1. Pish Posh Mr. Egg Head and your "new math". What matters is that Titanic has been dethroned. I have waited 12 long years.

    Alright, I admit, I agree with you with one caveat; which is to remember that back in days of Gone with the Wind if you didn't watch it in the theater you never watched it at all. It was you very bad self that enlightened on this many years ago. That obviously gives people more motivation to go. Many today would probably prefer to watch it at home with their ginormous high def screens and surround sound and noticable lack of an invitation to myself to come watch the super bowl (you know who you are).

    I don't know why I always found Titanic so annoying, the sinking ship portions where truly fantastic. I guess I found the love story and the rich vs poor idealism pretty annoying. And it was SOOOOO far out ahead, it really did look unbeatable, even with inflation. Avatar railed roaded it though and is barely slowing down. It very well might become truly unbeatable sans a couple decades of inflation. As it became clear Avatar was going to take the big ship down I wondered if the makers of Titanic were getting a bit nervous, you know that guy that . . . wait . . . James Cameron . . . what the . . . That dude must be at home this very moment, pondering if he is the son of Zeus or Krishna.

  2. Yes, cultural changes are another barrier to accurately comparing movies from different eras (which is why it's more significant to contrast Avatar with other films from the past twenty years.

    But don't forget, the television was specifically invented so that people could keep watching Gone with the Wind, even after it had left the theater. It was years before people turned to something other than the Rhett channel to see what else was on.

    I have two problems with Titanic. It is tragic; not just in the disaster sense, but in how things turn out for our protagonists. And Leonardo. He can act, but mostly he's a punk, and I don't enjoy watching him on screen. Here are five actors, roughly the same age as DiCaprio, who could have pulled off the role better: James Marsden, Giovanni Ribisi, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, and Adrien Brody. If any of them had been at bat (and if the movie was more about dancing, and less about dying), I could have loved that film.

  3. Thumbs up to Ribisi, Brody, and especially Marsden, my latest man crush. I’m not feeling Affleck in this role. I didn’t know Ejiofor was so young! I’m sure he would do a great job in the role but right now I have him permanently type cast as one of the baddest most awesome villains ever in Serenity. Upon hitting the iceberg and punching a whole in the ship, I envision Ejiofor giving the Atlantic a stern look, calmly delivering a subtle but ominous threat, and then round house kicking the Atlantic in the face; at which point the Atlantic ocean, having learned its lesson, would immediately repair the Titanic and send it on its way.

  4. I'm cheering for Avatar to pass the 700 Million mark. The estimate for this weekend is for it to hit 660. I think its doable. Jackie and I have decided to let the girls see it, so we'll be adding 6 dollars to Avatar coffers as soon as it hits our dollar theater

  5. One month later.

    I now cheering for 750, since we have managed 733. This movie is still bringing in around a half million on weekdays. Perhaps that drops to 300k or so next week, but with a couple of decent weekends, who knows.

    My only competing desire is for it to advance to second run theaters so I can take my kids. They're very excited, though I think Sophie might find the bulk of it rather boring for her age.

  6. Avatar has exited the majority of the Austin Area theaters with two or three exceptions. One exception, the movie theater we saw Ocean's 13 at, has three matinees and one evening showing for Friday.

  7. Avatar is now ranked 43rd for per capita ticket sales, passing, most notably, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which is fairly recent, is in the same genre, and had a huge (twenty year) build-up to its release. It's going to be a close call whether Avatar can rise to 39th place to pass Jurassic Park.