Is ‘Star Wars’ really the box office champion? By best calculation, it’s still ‘Gone With the Wind’

Adam Driver in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." (Photo credit: Lucasfilm)

Adam Driver in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” (Photo credit: Lucasfilm)

By Rich Heldenfels
Akron Beacon Journal

Ever since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” flew into theaters in December, the huge crowds have had people asking when it might become the all-time box-office champion.

On Thursday, the Walt Disney Co. proclaimed it “the highest grossing film of all time in the domestic market, surpassing the $760.5 million lifetime gross of ‘Avatar’ in a record-shattering 20 days of release.”

The announcement did not say exactly how much The Force Awakens had made, but it is still doing well at the U.S. box office. It’s also racking up big numbers overseas.

But is it really the “highest grossing film of all time”? In raw numbers, yes. With inflation factored in, though, it’s not even close.

According to Box Office Mojo, “Avatar” still stands ahead of “Star Wars.” After adjusting ticket prices for inflation, “Avatar’s” take, including the original showings and a re-release, is more than $837 million.

Of course, “The Force Awakens” could pass that figure. Which would put it in 13th place all-time.

Box Office Mojo’s inflation calculations have “Avatar” in 14th, behind such films as “The Exorcist,” “Ben-Hur” and the original animated “101 Dalmatians.”

Topping the inflation-adjusted list is “Gone With the Wind,” at more than $1.7 billion. Second is “The Force Awakens’” sibling, the original “Star Wars” at about $1.5 billion. Finishing the top five: “The Sound of Music,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Titanic.”

Of course, explaining how many tickets were sold to each movie would make more sense in assessing a film’s popularity. But the movie industry wants to impress you with its success, and dollar figures look better than the number of people in the seats.

When you say how many people went to a movie, it may not look all that impressive compared to other forms of entertainment; far more people watch a hit TV show in a given week than go to most hit movies. You can see the same phenomenon in the video-game industry, where, with the high cost of games, sales revenue looks much more impressive than units sold.

Still, dollar figures can be confusing, too. For example, the premium price for 3-D showings can lead to income that looks higher than actual attendance, and many reports on box-office returns make note of what percentage comes from 3-D showings.

These days, international numbers often overtake those in the United States, and ensure profitability when domestic revenues wane. And revenue tallies do not always reflect profitability — which is the big reason for making sequels, spinoffs and imitations.

“The Force Awakens” is unquestionably profitable, with a reported budget of $200 million — and more spent on advertising — well taken care of by its worldwide income well in excess of $1.5 billion, not to mention the income from its various product tie-ins.

But you don’t always need to spend a lot to make a lot: “Straight Outta Compton” made more than $200 million on a $28 million budget. “War Room” took in $67 million with a $3 million budget.

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