Eric D. Snider February 10, 2010
In August 2008, when The Dark Knight was shattering one box-office record after another, I wrote a piece for this website entitled: “Can Dark Knight Overtake Titanic? Short Answer: No.” I was right about that, but I was wrong about something else. Here’s what I wrote:
“So what will it take to dethrone the current King of the World? Inflation. No film will gross more than $600 million domestically for at least another five years — and when it happens, it will be because ticket prices have gone up sufficiently.”
But now Avatar has sprinted past Titanic‘s $600 million record, grossing more than $630 million to date and still going strong — and it’s only been 18 months, not five years. Ticket prices have gone up only marginally. (More on that later.) My prophecy was inaccurate. I am a fallen prophet.
In my defense, my reasoning was sound. Titanic came out in December 1997, when movies still played in theaters for several months, giving them time to profit from word of mouth. Today, movies are front-loaded, the studios trying to make as much dough as possible in the first few weekends before quickly moving them to DVD. (The Dark Knight opened theatrically July 18 and was on DVD before Christmas.) Even hugely popular films open big, then drop off about 50 percent the second weekend, then another 30 to 40 percent the third weekend, and so forth. This pattern is pretty consistent.
So what did Avatar do differently? It failed to lose most of its audience from one week to the next, that’s what. Look at its weekend performances at Box Office Mojo. It opened with $77 million, about the same as Star Trek. But Star Trek followed the normal pattern: $75 million the first weekend, then $43 million, then $23 million, $12 million, $8 million, $5 million, etc. Avatar‘s weekends looked like this: $77 million, $75 million, $68 million, $50 million, $43 million. Attendance was barely dropping off at all. In its sixth weekend, when it ought to have been earning around $5 million, it earned $35 million.
Remember, this isn’t the kind of thing that can be explained with, “Well, it’s just a really good movie that lots of people love.” That also describes the Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Shrek movies, and none of them performed like this. NO film has performed like this. Think of a movie that is beloved by everyone you know, that seems to be a favorite among all the peoples of the world. Whatever you’re thinking of, it didn’t make as much money as Avatar. So there’s obviously more to it than simply being popular. Even popular movies stop making money eventually.
Theories for this aberration abound, and they probably all contributed. Avatar had little serious competition in late December and January; if it had been released in the summer, there would have been another “event” film opening the next weekend to steal its thunder. Its appeal is fairly broad: sci-fi but not geeky, romantic but not mushy, colorful but not cartoonish, action-packed but not graphically violent. That means entire families can see it, including children and elderly persons.
But I think the largest factor in Avatar‘s anomalous success is the most apparent one: that extra third dimension. By most accounts Avatar‘s use of 3-D is better than anything its predecessors did. Apart from George Lucas, no one has ever created an alien world that was so fully realized, so detailed, so immersive. Plenty of people come out of Avatar underwhelmed by the pasted-together story and disappointed by the lack of memorable characters, but they’re still in awe of the visual effects, and they recommend it to their friends for that reason.
3-D helps for another reason, too: tickets cost more when the movie is in three dimensions. Avatar has reportedly made 80 percent of its money, or $500 million, from 3-D screenings, with the other $130 million coming from old-fashioned 2-D. If there were no price difference, that $500 million would be more like $350 million, and the U.S. total would be a mere $480 million — not even enough to beat The Dark Knight yet.
Perhaps the fairest way to measure a film’s success is to count the number of tickets sold, the actual butts-in-seats tally. That’s what Box Office Mojo does with its adjusted-for-inflation list. You take the film’s actual gross, divide it by whatever the average ticket price was at the time to get an estimate of the number of tickets sold, then multiply the number of tickets by the current average price. Adjusting for inflation, Avatar is the 21st-highest-grossing film of all time. More people bought tickets for The Phantom Menace. And everyone HATED that movie.
And what about Gone with the Wind? Everyone keeps pointing out that it sold way more tickets than Avatar has. Entertainment Weekly cites the book Scarlett, Rhett, and a Cast of Thousands in saying GWTW sold 25 million tickets during its initial release in 1939-40, which was 19 percent of the total American population at the time (131 million). Box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told EW that Avatar had sold 62 million tickets in the United States as of last Monday, which would be about 65 million now. The current U.S. population is 308 million, of which 65 million is … 21 percent. Therefore, it would appear that Avatar has penetrated a slightly larger segment of the population than GWTW did. (That’s assuming everyone only saw the movie once, which we know isn’t true, but it’s the best we can do. There’s no way of knowing how many tickets are sold to repeat customers.)
GWTW was re-released in 1941 and 1942, selling another 34.5 million tickets in the process. To match that in terms of percentage of the population, Avatar would need to sell another 85 million tickets. That’s obviously not going to happen. Even if the film is re-released in a few years (which is rare nowadays), it’s highly unlikely that it would sell MORE tickets than it did the first time. In terms of viewership, Avatar may never match the heights reached by films in the pre-DVD era, which could capitalize on re-releases to boost their numbers. But in sheer financial terms, it is undisputedly the champ, both domestically and worldwide. How long before another movie passes it? I’m not even going to guess.
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Eric D. Snider (website) remembers a time when there were movies other than Avatar to talk about.
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