Stupid Question ™
Sept. 5, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why is movie popularity measured in dollars earned instead of tickets sold?
A: Since the movie is the product being sold, not the ticket, the bottom line in dollars is all anyone cares about. (Even the theaters are making their money on concessions, not tickets.)
Ticket prices vary, of course, so the number of tickets sold would be a slightly more accurate way of gauging a film’s popularity than its gross income, at least over a span of decades. (Contemporary films compete on similar enough terms that the difference would be negligible.)
But by any standard, movie accounting is a Byzantine and in some cases corrupt practice that provides little ground for judging a film’s cultural significance. Of the top 10 films on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films, only one (“Gone with the Wind”) is among the top 50 highest grossers.
Public focus on top-grossing films only arose in the 1970s, with “The Godfather’s” slow climb to record-breaking success and “Jaws’” innovation of immediate nationwide release resulting in smash numbers. Back then, with a depressed economy, low movie attendance and more restricted distribution, big grosses did link frequently to quality.
Public knowledge of weekly box office reports—and their abuse in “No. 1 movie in America!” ad campaigns—came about only in the booming 1990s, when many quick-buck films had little to boast of except the exorbitant amount of money they made opening week before everybody got wise. Today the No. 1 film often makes around $30 million—hardly a mandate—and slips down the chart after only a week.
The top-grossing lists you see are always only “domestic” (US and Canadian) grosses of American films (thus, no James Bond). That’s because worldwide grosses, which are almost solely self-reported by the studios, are considered too shady to be reported by respectable authorities.
More respectable accounting is done here (though even here the accounting was secretive and shady until the 1970s) by the Exhibitor Relations Company, which combines studio reports with theater receipt reports. Still, there have been scandals about studios doctoring reports to inch their films to No. 1 Studio accounting often makes Enron look ethical.
If you want to measure popularity, cable TV viewership and video rental/sales stats would add more significant information than a ticket-sale count.
For example, “Pretty Woman” has the 62nd-highest box office of all time, but it’s the No. 1 video rental.
Ticket sales also might tell you more about moviegoing itself than about any given film. Movie theaters in the 1940s drew something like 90 million people a week, which has never been equaled, but there are no top grossers from that era.
On the other side of the same coin, 34 of the top 50 grossers came out within the past five years. This is likely an artifact of a booming economy, wide distribution, higher ticket prices and a marketing focus on opening-week attendance rather than a ringing endorsement of, say, “Rush Hour 2.”