Watching movies break box office records can be exciting, especially if the movies are ones for which we have an affinity. But every now and again it's important to take a step back and realize that the numbers by which we judge these things are very flawed, and change with time. I'm an old enough fuck to remember when breaking $100 million was a huge, huge deal. Now The Avengers is about to break $500 million, and while that is a spectacular number you have to wonder what it really means.
After all, we're already at the place where a movie can make $200 million and not be a real success - look at Superman Returns. It's all about the larger costs of making and distributing movies, and so the dollar amounts are kind of nebulous. I've always felt that the best way to examine box office isn't through money spent - as that number is influenced by rising ticket prices and gimmick 3D surcharges - but through admissions. How many tickets were bought for the movie, not how many dollars did it take in?
Unfortunately we're a dollar based industry, so nobody really counts tickets sold. Still, we can look at the all-time adjusted box office charts and get a different feel for how our current blockbusters stack up. With those glasses on we see that The Avengers should be passing The Towering Inferno this weekend, as well as maybe Bambi and Blazing Saddles. That should put in the inflation-adjusted top 50. Unadjusted, The Avengers beat The Phantom Menace today, but it has to earn about 200 million more dollars to beat it in adjusted bucks.
To me these adjusted numbers are actually sort of sad. While the dollar amounts are rising, I think admissions are falling. Fewer people are getting out to the movies, and even the movies that are enormous, earth-shattering, across-the-board hits don't get as many asses in seats as the really great films of the past. And while Hollywood is surely making larger sums of money, look at the profit margins on these older films - they were making a zillion dollars and cost a fraction of what they cost to make today.
Then again, I do feel no small sense of satisfaction that, adjusted, The Graduate will probably always have earned more money than any comic book movie.