The Real Box Office Numbers

What you’re about to find yourself reading is something of a rant. I’ll do what I can to keep things in check, but I feel the need to make sure that someone, somewhere calls out the facts when it comes to all these films setting box office records. What I’m about to explain, that you may already realize, is that most of it is moose poop.

The Avengers made headlines this second week of being number 1 at the box office worldwide and for pretty good reasons. 1 billion of them actually. According to, the superhero spectacular has raked in just over 1 billion, with a ‘B’, in revenue world wide. Just about a third of that is from domestic ticket sales, but impressive nonetheless. Deserving of the profit as it may be (and boy is it), dollar signs are a sketchy way to represent quality or popularity of a movie, primarily boiling down to one reason: Inflation.

The Good Ole Days

The price of a movie ticket today fringes on exploitative. The Media Geeks’ base of operations is right near the heart of the film biz in Los Angeles, so we probably get hit a little harder in the wallet for a day at the multiplex. Average prices around here are 10 bucks a pop. Some of the nicer theaters (digital projection, reserved seating, more than 3 inches of leg room) bump prices up a little more into the 12-14 dollar range. And lest we forget about the effect 3D has on admission. In ye olden times (1990’s) ticket prices averaged around 5 bucks. There were no premiums for cheesy 3D and real butter on your popcorn was the norm, not the exception. In 1990, for a film to make a billion dollars, it would need to sell approximately 20 million tickets. And taking into consideration that releasing films internationally took months, sometimes a year or more back then means that much of that would need to be done in the U.S..

But let’s go back a little further. In 1965 Julie Andrews helped set the cinematic world on fire with a little movie known as The Sound of Music. During its one (and only documented) cinematic run, it grossed nearly 160 million dollars. Ticket prices in 1965? 1 whole dollar. Doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out how many tickets were sold. At today’s ticket prices (averaging 8 dollars nationwide), that gross total would be staggering. Certainly enough to warrant a couple of poorly written sequels.

Needless to say, impressive.

Back to the Future

So given all that, why don’t films make more? If theaters are charging so dang much, shouldn’t profits be through the roof? Well, no. And despite what studios might try to convince people, it has nothing to do with piracy. Mostly, it has to do with availability and choice. In April of ’65, when The Sound of Music was released it had virtually no competition which, for the time, was pretty typical. A film would have a solid week without any other release crowding screens. A couple of films came out in the following weeks, but the entire following month was bare of any new releases.

That’s unheard of nowadays. Most films are lucky to have a 2 or 3 week total run and it isn’t unusual for 6 or more films to all start their run on the same weekend, particularly in the early summer months. Audiences are fickle, so it’s a good thing we have a lot to choose from. The result is a need for studios to grab and hold our short attention spans. What better way to get our attention than to talk dollars and cents?

The Money Game

So why are we so hung up on receipts? I suppose it looks better on posters and TV commercials, but it doesn’t represent a fair assessment of the quality of a film. At best, it MIGHT reveal something towards its popularity, but only within the scope of the month, or even the year, it was released.

Explosions?Take it to the extreme: Let’s say Michael Bay poops out another 3D sci-fi loaf of a movie, but mandates to theaters that ticket prices to his new masterpiece must be upwards of, say 10 million a piece.

What? I said extreme, but would you put it past him?

So, in that extreme circumstance, Bay would only need convince a hundred or so super rich suckers, er, celebrity friends to pay the price of admission in order to hit those billion dollar benchmarks. Starting to see its relevance now? Money made does not necessarily equal tickets sold. The more you charge, the less you need to sell to hit those heights, though it’ll be a harder sell. In other words, don’t immediately trust the numbers. Especially where the 3D price hike is involved (but that’s a topic for a different day).

My little rant certainly isn’t going to change the way the industry presents itself nor does it mean that a billion bucks is something to be ignored. It just asks to be a little more wary about what those numbers really mean relevant to a film’s direct competition. The Avengers is the latest billion dollar club member and it’s well on its way to breaking all time grossing records, but I guarantee next year will introduce another. And the year after that… and another after that. 10 years from now, it’ll be a 2 or 3 billion dollar goal line.

Just remember: when ticket prices are 30 bucks a pop, 3 billion isn’t all that hard to reach.

Christopher Kirkman

Christopher is an old school nerd: designer, animator, code monkey, writer, gamer and Star Wars geek. As owner and Editor-In-Chief of Media Geeks, he takes playing games and watching movies very seriously. You know, in between naps.

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