A few weeks ago, headlines celebrated “Avatar” for passing “Avengers: Endgame” as the top-grossing global blockbuster of all time — inspiring the Russo Brothers to congratulate James Cameron for regaining the crown — but the truth is more complex.
That entire claim is based upon today’s dollars, which are in no way reflective of historical comparison. We must adjust for inflation, which drops “Avatar” to No. 15 and “Avengers: Endgame” to No. 16, at least domestically (Box Office Mojo hasn’t compiled worldwide adjusted numbers, because inflation rates vary between nations).
This May the 4th, I challenge my fellow Jedis to launch a campaign to make the second-place “Star Wars” (1977) the new all-time adjusted box-office champ!
Before you rush to your box-office battle stations, here are three points to consider:
1) ‘Gone with the Wind’ Conundrum
The inflation metric is a tough conversation because the top spot belongs to “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which many folks find outdated and offensive for its nostalgia toward the slave-holding Antebellum South, echoing “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
Film scholars are caught in a Catch-22 due to the film’s importance. Martin Scorsese called it, “The best production of the Hollywood studio system of the first half of the century.” Turner Classic Movies runs a disclaimer, choosing context over censorship.
Sigh, if only “Star Wars” ranked No. 1, we could have a champ that everyone could rally around. Not only does “Star Wars” provide the diversity of James Earl Jones voicing Darth Vader, The Force is a more universal message that holds up better.
2) Comparing Apples to Apples
For any doubters of the inflation metric, try comparing films within their own franchise.
“Jurassic World” (2015) ranks higher in today’s dollars, but the original “Jurassic Park” (1993) is higher when adjusted, which makes sense to anyone who actually lived it. Of course Steven Spielberg’s dino original was bigger. We hadn’t seen anything like it!
The remake of “The Lion King” (2019) ranks higher in today’s dollars, but “The Lion King” (1994) is higher when adjusted, which again tracks for those who lived it. Of course the original was bigger. It was the peak of the Disney Renaissance!
Likewise, “The Force Awakens” (2015) ranks No. 1 all-time domestically (unadjusted), but the original “Star Wars” (1977) is higher when adjusted, which is a big fat duh. Of course George Lucas’ original phenomenon was bigger than the seventh installment!
Inflation also makes more sense when comparing directors against their own body of work. I can say from personal experience that “Titanic” (1997) was James Cameron’s biggest blockbuster, not “Avatar” (2009). Anyone who lived through it would agree.
Here’s a tip: If you look at a box-office list and only see movies made in the past 25 years, a red flag should go up and say, “Wait a minute, this can’t be accurate. Movies have existed for a long time. Where’s ‘Jaws?’ Where’s ‘E.T.?’ Something is off here.”
3) Recognizing Societal Forces
Alas, no formula is perfect due to the evolution of the industry and our seismic shifts in moviegoing habits. Today, there are way more movie theaters around the world due to expanding global markets. On the flip side, there used to be more movie theaters in the United States, although those theaters had fewer screens than today’s multiplexes.
Movies also used to stay in theaters for a longer duration, sometimes upwards of a year, as opposed to a few months before hitting home video or streaming. Movies have always had to compete with other forms of entertainment: first live theater, then radio, then television, then the internet, now social media and countless streaming platforms.
It remains to be seen whether audiences will even return to movie theaters after the pandemic, which would make this a moot point. Today’s viewers are more likely to watch “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ than run to watch re-releases of “Star Wars” at the multiplex, which would have to happen in order to overtake “Gone with the Wind.”
Still, if modern viewers want true bragging rights on social media, “Star Wars” is the closest thing we’ve got to upsetting the Evil Empire. “Avatar” and “Endgame” are just too far down the adjusted domestic list at No. 15 and 16, respectively. Maybe in time.
“Avengers” fans will certainly be disappointed to hear this, but think of it this way: Wouldn’t you want “Endgame” to keep its status 50 years from now instead of some “Endgame” remake in 2069 simply because future money is worth more? That’s what’s happening to “Star Wars.” It’s being penalized for ’70s cash not being worth as much.
Your May the 4th mission, whether you choose to accept it, is to make “Star Wars” the new all-time champ. It might seem like an impossible task, but if Twitter hashtags can force a director’s cut of “Justice League” on HBO Max, nothing is impossible for Jedis.
May the force be with you.