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Avatar's Gross

On Tuesday of this week, Avatar completed its Triple Crown of all-time box office records, all of which it captured from James Cameron’s previous hit, Titanic--first it took the record for foreign gross (previously $1.2 billion; Avatar is now at $1.5 billion), then the record for worldwide gross (previously $1.8 billion; Avatar is now at $2.1 billion), and now finally the $600 million record for domestic gross. 
There are many things one can say about all this success, such as wondering why a movie should be so successful which, despite its breathtaking visual beauty, offers a completely vapid and cliched story.  But then one remembers that other mega-blockbusters of recent decades have scarcely had more to offer--Titanic, E.T., Jaws, and Star Wars, for example. 

I mean, really, Star Wars is fun and all, and has a pretty good story, but when you go back and watch it, you can’t help but be dazzled by how bad the script is at times, and wonder how it captured the imagination of a generation.  Indeed, there seems to be little logic to why certain movies become super-blockbusters, so it is hardly worth singling out one and protesting that it’s undeserving.
The same could be said about Avatar’s remarkable success with the critics--how a movie like Avatar could win the Golden Globe’s Best Picture award and be a serious contender for the Oscar defies the powers of reason.  And yet, one remembers Titanic’s astounding Oscar success, and then remembers that the Academy, when the tsunami of popular frenzy grows large enough, knows how to abandon their snobbish ways and go with the flow.
One could also point out that, in inflation-adjusted terms, Avatar’s box-office run, while remarkable, is hardly historic.  Of course, it may still be very high on the inflation-adjusted worldwide list, but that’s simply because the ex-U.S. movie-watching market has grown so vastly in recent years (for example, 60% of Star Wars’s gross was domestic, 33% of Titanic’s, and only 29% of Avatar’s).  On the domestic inflation-adjusted list, it’s currently only 21st, or to be fair, 14th if you’re counting initial releases (since many of the films ahead of it got a substantial portion of their grosses in re-releases).  
But what doesn’t make sense is to insist, as a number of pundits have lately, that its gross should be adjusted for the fact that its ticket prices have generally been higher, since most have been for 3-D or Imax.  This would be like saying that Apple’s sales figures ought to be adjusted downward to compensate for the fact that its laptops are more expensive than their PC equivalents.  The higher price discourages people from buying it, duh!  Otherwise, why wouldn’t every movie just ratchet up its ticket prices accordingly?  It’s simple laws of supply and demand, people!  If Avatar can succeed in selling so many tickets when it’s charging more than all the other movies currently out, then it should get credited with every dollar it earns. 
I’m sure I’m the only person who has been annoyed by this, or at least, sufficiently annoyed to think about it and write something about it, but I’m something of a statistics nerd, and the manifest lack of common sense being exhibited was really vexing.  So, now I’ve got that off my chest, and you (if you’ve read this far) have lots of useless facts to stow in your head.


"what doesn’t make sense is to insist, as a number of pundits have lately, that its gross should be adjusted for the fact that its ticket prices have generally been higher."

Several points of agreement, one of dispute. Yes, we shouldn't fudge the numbers just so we can generate an answer we want. Yes, trying to adjust for worldwide inflation at varying rates makes inflation-adjusting a tricky game at best. And emphatically yes, IMAX receipts should not be 'discounted' in calculating the gross take just because they cost more. Cameron convinced people to pay more for his movie, so that should count.

So I think I agree completely with the substance of your post (should there be bells rung or something? it's such a rare occasion). But I'd like to add one more thought to the discussion:

I agree with the people who want to count tickets sold (as opposed to receipts, which can vary per-ticket) as a valid indicator of cultural impact. Real businesses like Apple ARE judged on market share and units sold, not just on gross income. Fewer people have seen Avatar than saw Gone With The Wind, even in its initial release. Fewer bodies, minds, and pairs of eyeballs witnessed Avatar than Star Wars. And that is an adjustment we can make to help prick the hype-bubble (because I'm just against hype).

February 7, 2010 at 7:24 AM  

Yes, Melissa, you are quite right. I had actually meant to add that caveat. That explains, I think, why Avatar, for all the hype, doesn't seem to be anywhere near as big a deal as Titanic was. I remember the Titanic craze vividly, even though I was completely culturally unaware at that time. Whereas, with Avatar, as often as not you run into folks who haven't seen it and don't plan to.

But in terms of cultural impact, Star Wars was definitely the greatest, and it did sell more tickets than any other film at its initial release.

February 8, 2010 at 12:45 AM  

Possibly Star Wars was successful because it contained an element of what C S Lewis called the mythpoeic. As with Rider Haggard, the execution wasn't always great. But in spite of it the story created (or appealed to the latent) archetypes that really grabbed people's imaginations. Not having seen E.T., the Titanic, or Avatar, I don't know if they would fit.

February 16, 2010 at 6:51 PM  

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