OK. So James Cameron's Avatar is the all-time box office champion, and even if you adjust for inflation, it's still the #15 all-time box office champion, which is nothing to sneeze at. Everyone knows that it displaced the former #1 hit, Titanic, which was also by Cameron. But what was #1 before Titanic? Or before that? What makes all these films similar, or different? I thought it would be fun to go back over the all-time box office champs and pick them apart to see what makes them tick.
One of the very first blockbusters was The Birth of a Nation (1915), which apparently earned about $10 million back on its $100,000 budget. That was big money in those days, but that movie no longer appears on the top 100 "adjusted for inflation" chart. The next big blockbuster was Gone with the Wind (1939), which -- adjusted for inflation -- is still #1. It's a genuine phenomenon, and it still has the power to wow audiences, although it's that high on the list mainly because it was re-released every few years, earning a tidy profit on top of its profit. Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) both came close, but didn't quite make the record.
The record held until inflation and The Sound of Music (1965) trounced it and held it for seven years. (Doctor Zhivago was a strong runner-up the same year.) The Graduate (1967) was the next monster hit, though it did not displace The Sound of Music. Next up came The Godfather (1972), which occupied the #1 slot for a time. After that, things get a bit murky. Both The Exorcist and The Sting came along in 1973. The box office charts of the time showed that they did not beat The Godfather, but the current "adjusted for inflation" chart puts them both over the top, with The Exorcist earning a good deal more than The Sting.
Jaws (1975) showed them all a thing or two. This was the movie that coined the term "summer blockbuster." It was a great movie, and a critical hit, based on a best-selling book, brilliantly marketed, and -- above all -- a word of mouth hit. Star Wars (1977) took its place, for obvious reasons. It's still #3 on the box office gross list, and #2 on the "adjusted for inflation" list. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) came close to the record, but E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) became the next actual champion. E.T. was a genuine hit, no doubt, but it had a little help because the distributor required theaters to charge a full $5 for tickets, rather than the usual $3.50, just as Avatar convinced people to pay extra for IMAX and 3D.
E.T. held the record for an incredible 15 years, until Titanic (though E.T. is still ranked higher than Titanic on the "adjusted for inflation" list). Jurassic Park is the only movie that came close to the record in all those years. (By which we can conclude that Spielberg still delivers the hits more consistently than Cameron.) There are a few other titles worth mentioning, namely Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has built up an impressive box office tally over many years of re-releases.
What do all these movies have in common? Strangely most of them are long, which somehow defies the conventional wisdom. Distributors usually shy away from long movies, thinking that shorter movies allow for more showtimes per day and therefore more ticket sales. But it's more than that. These long movies are also BIG movies, spectacular movies with at least one king-sized sequence that could blow away moviegoers and send them home buzzing. (The burning of Atlanta, the parting of the Red Sea, the chariot race, the sinking of the Titanic, etc.) If there are people who only go to see one movie per year, this is the movie they'll see.
This also applies to The Exorcist, which was certainly not a feel-good movie or an epic of any kind, but everyone in the country had to go see the girl whose head twisted around and who spewed green vomit. That movie upped the ante for shocking and people not only told their friends to see it; they dared their friends to see it.
All of these movies are entertainments, like carnival rides or roller coasters. A few of them have some personal or artistic merit, but not many of them are very deep in the character or story department. One exception leaps forward: The Godfather. In comparison to all the other movies on this list, and indeed, in comparison to most other movies ever made, The Godfather is uncommonly reserved, patient, intelligent, and complex, with some of the most memorable characters in cinema history.
How did this movie get to be the #1 all-time box office champion, even if only for a year or two? At the time, audiences buzzed over a few key scenes, especially the horse's head scene. But is that really enough? Did they show up for the horse's head and stay for the rest? How was the American public coaxed into shelling out in huge numbers for a slow, smart movie?
I don't know the answer to those questions, but I will mention three more words: The Dark Knight. This was the only movie to come close to the #1 spot in the years between Titanic and Avatar. It was easy to advertise. It was a sequel to a hit, a comic book movie, the last performance of the iconic Heath Ledger, and a summer blockbuster. But, like The Godfather, it was much darker, more complex, and more intelligent than it might have been, and audiences still turned out in near-record numbers.
Which leads me to the real question, the one I have been dying to ask. What if The Godfather was released today, right now, in theaters, with no preconceived notions and no history? Would it gross as much as Avatar? (Would it be shown in IMAX and 3D?) Would today's moviegoers have the patience for it? Have movie audiences been more willing to settle for less and less? Or have movie audiences remained essentially unchanged throughout the past century? Was The Godfather just an anomaly? Can it ever happen again?
What do you think, dear readers?