Increases in ticket prices over the years, due to inflation and other factors, have caused those numbers to go askew from how many people were actually seeing a movie. Headlines touting dollar figures are much more eye-catching than numbers of tickets sold, and it's the sole figure that Hollywood and fandom worships. "Did you hear how much Avatar made this weekend?" is all anyone cares about. Box office records are falling left and right, and the industry took in over ten billion dollars last year.
These days, a film's life or death is charted by how quickly it reaches $100 million at the box office. If it does it very quickly, they'll announce all sorts of sequels and spinoffs are in the works. If it does it slowly, or not at all, you'll seldom hear much more about it unless it becomes a cult hit later on DVD/Blu-ray. But does that number reflect how many people are seeing a movie? It's supposed to be a general benchmark for the popularity of a film ... so why don't we just use numbers of tickets sold instead?
Consider this: movie prices have steadily increased to a point where ten bucks is considered a "bargain matinee" price. At least that's according to the box office receipt at the Pacific Paseo in Pasadena this weekend where a single ticket for Up In The Air cost $9.50. That's the low end of the spectrum. On the other side, you have tickets for IMAX 3D performances costing $15, and premium theaters like Village Roadshow's Gold Class Cinemas charge $22 for seats to current films.
Contrast this with the fact that in 1939 a movie ticket cost five cents for a matinee, and ten cents for an evening show, and it's all the more staggering that Gone With The Wind still sits atop the charts as the most popular film of all time. When adjusted for inflation, it has grossed almost one and a half billion dollars. That's truly a staggering number, especially when you consider that we have far more screens these days than we did back then.
Avatar has crossed the one billion dollar mark worldwide, and if you (forgivingly) figure an average ticket price of ten bucks a ticket, that means they've sold 100 million tickets. Divide Gone With The Wind's $190 million domestic box office by ten cents, and that's 1.9 billion tickets. A figure that's much more impressive. I'm no Rain Man, so those figures are subject to a lot of error, including the fog of history, but ... wow.
So why don't we chart a movie's success by the number of tickets they've sold? You don't hear that Yankee Stadium made $40 million dollars in one night, you hear that they sold out all 50,086 of its seats. Shouldn't the weekend box office reflect the same thing? What do you think?