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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 5, 2010

Ticket prices on steroids skew box office

By Patrick Goldstein
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

“Avatar” is setting records in money raked in — $2 billion and counting. But the 3-D epic has a long way to go in terms of actual viewers before it measures up to “Gone With the Wind” and other hits that cost less to see in their day.

20th Century Fox

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

“Gone With the Wind,” the No. 1 movie in tickets bought, is also the box office’s biggest in inflation-adjusted bucks.

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When is a box-office record really a record?

That's worth pondering as "Avatar" is being called the No. 1 all-time box-office movie — and it's a question likely to come up more frequently in the future. It suggests that maybe it's time to change the way the industry ranks movies in box-office charts.

"Avatar," like so many recent movies, has benefited from the steep rise in ticket prices, especially in the new 3-D era.

So should "Avatar's" box-office numbers carry an asterisk?

After all, if we were writing about the all-time box-office champ in terms of actual ticket admissions, it would still be "Gone With the Wind," David O. Selznick's 1939 sweeping historical romance that has riveted moviegoers for generations.

If you put together an all-time box-office chart, adjusted for inflation, "Gone With the Wind" remains the undefeated, unrivaled champion, having earned an astounding $1.45 billion in ticket sales over the years.

As box-office guru www.Hollywood.com's Paul Dergarabedian told me last week: "You never want to say never, but that's a record that I don't think will ever be broken."

In an adjusted-for-inflation, all-time box-office top 10 (compiled by Dergarabedian), "Gone With the Wind" is the easy winner, with George Lucas' 1977 "Star Wars" in the No. 2 slot, with $1.26 billion in grosses, followed by 1965's "The Sound of Music," 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and 1956's "The Ten Commandments."

James Cameron's "Titanic" comes in at No. 6 on that chart (with $955 million) while "Avatar" doesn't even come close to making the top 10, with a mere $596 million in grosses so far.

To give you an idea of how different the adjusted-gross box-office chart is from the all-time box-office chart we normally follow, "Gone With the Wind" doesn't make even the top 50 all-time box-office leaders — the chart that now has "Avatar" on top.

To say that the chart we normally use is weighted toward recent movies would be an understatement. When Dergarabedian compiled the all-time box-office chart (not adjusted for inflation), only five of its top 50 films were released before 1997 — Lucas' original "Star Wars" trilogy, Spielberg's "E.T." and 1990's "Home Alone."

The vast majority of films on the list were released in the last half-dozen years. But turn things around and check the adjusted-gross top 10, and there's only one film — "Titanic" — that was released in the last 30 years.

Something is out of whack. In a comparison with our other statistic-obsessed national pastime — baseball, of course — the movie industry's box-office charts look suspiciously like baseball's steroid-plagued all-time home run list.

In most career baseball records, including pitchers' victories, hits, RBIs and even stolen bases, there are plenty of representatives in the upper reaches of the record book from the historic and modern era. But among all-time home run leaders, the top 20 list is crammed with players from the steroid era — players whose majority of career years were during the 1990s and first half of the 2000s.

Baseball purists are pretty unhappy about this development, so much so that when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, many of the steroid-era sluggers are being shunned. (Mark McGwire has 583 home runs, normally a number that would easily qualify a hitter for the Hall of Fame, but the former St. Louis Cardinals slugger, who recently admitted to steroid use, has earned barely 25 percent of baseball writers' votes since he became eligible for induction, far short of what's needed for admission.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying "Avatar" or any of the other modern-day box-office behemoths are unworthy of their money-making honors.

But because of ticket price inflation, which has quietly taken a giant leap forward thanks to the extra dollars moviegoers are paying to see 3-D movies, the all-time box-office charts are even more heavily weighted than ever toward 21st-century films. And with more 3-D films in the pipeline, in a few years the top of the charts will be more dominated by current films.

The solution? Why not switch to box-office charts based on attendance, not grosses, which would give us a more realistic portrait of how many people actually see a film, not just how much moola its studio makes?

When I think of how much cultural heft a film has, I'm more interested in how many people enjoyed the communal delight of being in front of the big screen, not simply how much money they had to pay to see it.