The Inflation Adjustment

Should box office grosses be adjusted for inflation?

With the Harry Potter film franchise coming to an end this week there is a dispute about whether or not it is the most successful film series in history.

Wikipedia says it is:

But The Economist report that another British icon, James Bond, remains the box office champ:

But who is right?

It would seem to depend on which information you choose to include or accept.

When people talk about the highest grossing films of all time, there is often a debate about whether or not Gone with the Wind (1939) is still the biggest film of all time.

When Avatar broke Titanic’s record Forbes published an article making this point.

Why?

It involves the magical words ‘adjusted for inflation‘, but how exactly is inflation adjusted?

Over at Box Office Mojo they describe their process:

Inflation-adjustment is mostly done by multiplying estimated admissions by the latest average ticket price. Where admissions are unavailable, adjustment is based on the average ticket price for when each movie was released (taking in to account re-releases where applicable).

Essentially what they are saying is that a simple bit of guesswork maths comes up with the following equation:

(estimated admissions x latest average ticket prices)

There is a certain logic to that, but what about the era before home entertainment really exploded in the 1980s?

Films such as Gone with the Wind were re-released at cinemas because there was no home entertainment ‘afterlife’.

Until the advent of television in the 1950s, VHS in the 1980s and DVD in 1990s films like this could only be seen in cinemas.

Box Office Mojo further describe how they account for this in their ‘adjusted for inflation’ box office chart:

* Indicates documented multiple theatrical releases. Most of the pre-1980 movies listed on this chart had multiple undocumentented releases over the years. The year shown is the first year of release. Most pre-1980 pictures achieved their totals through multiple releases, especially Disney animated features which made much of their totals in the past few decades belying their original release dates in terms of adjustment. For example, Snow White has made $118,328,683 of its unadjusted $184,925,486 total since 1983.

So Gone with the Wind and classic Disney movies hugely benefitted from re-releases over the years, simply because there was no home entertainment market.

Dig further and it gets even more complicated.

According to Box Office Mojo weekend box office data was primitive at best, even well in to the 1990s:

many movies from the 80s to mid-90s may not have as extensive weekend box office data and many movies prior to 1980 may not have weekend data at all, so the full timeframe for when that movie made its money may not be available. In such cases (and where actual number of tickets sold is not available), we can only adjust based on its total earnings and the average ticket price for the year it was released.

Still, this should be a good general guideline to gauge a movie’s popularity and compare it to other movies released in different years or decades. Since inflation adjusted sales figures are therefore not widely publicized by the film industry, inflation adjusted sales rankings and ticket sales comparisons across the last 100 years are difficult to compile.

So although we can get a rough idea of the popularity of a particular film, is it really so sensible to claim Gone with the Wind is a bigger film than Avatar based on a series of calculations?

If you go down the mathematical adjustment route, more things have to be factored in and that leads to even more questions.

What do changing ticket prices really say?

Whilst it is true that the cost of seeing Gone with the Wind in the 1930s was less than Avatar in 2009, there are other issues that come in to play.

The most obvious is the fundamental differences of two eras: films were released in a gradual way up until the 1970s and there were no computers or any of the data tracking tools studios now take for granted.

There is also the slippery nature of inflation itself: do the changes in ticket prices over several decades vary?

Inflation is used as a catch all term, but the rate of inflation may be different in 1950, 1970 and 2000 (is your head exploding yet?).

So, the equation which links ticket prices and inflation are on shifting sands.

Even if you compared the number of tickets sold, rather than the amount they sold for, you’ve got the additional problem of older machines and the retention of data from eras that weren’t using computers or keeping any detailed records.

(I would assume that grosses for films in the early 20th century were either reported in trade journals, newspapers or studio records)

What about the last decade? How do we measure the impact of 3D and IMAX prices, as you might argue that the grosses for Avatar and The Dark Knight were ‘artificially inflated’ by these newer formats which have in-built higher prices.

But what happens when you don’t adjust for inflation at all?

It would seem that over the last decade major movie studios have pushed this line, with wider releases on more screens so that they can use the term record-breaking as part of their marketing strategy.

If you look at the current top 10 grossing films of all time on Wikipedia, the list is dominated by big franchises from the last decade.

The only exception is Titanic (1997) at number 2.

But what this list really reveals is that modern marketing and distribution systems are more advanced than ever before.

If you want a different perspective, consider the following films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Rear Window (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974).

What do they have in common?

The answer is that they were the most successful films of their respective years, which Wikipedia have usefully listed under another list of the highest-grossing films by year:

After Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) the list is mostly filled by action or fantasy tent-pole releases, with the 2000s being dominated by pirates, wizards and hobbits.

Wikipedia explains the normalizing of data to individual years:

Normalizing this to the reference year normalizes all social, economical, and political factors such as the availability of expendable cash, number of theater screens, relative cost of tickets, competition from television, the rapid releases of movies on DVDs, the improvement of home theater equipment, and film bootlegging.

For example, in 1946 the per capita movie ticket purchasing rate for the average person was 34 tickets a year. In 2004, this average rate had dropped to only five tickets per person per year, in response mainly to competition from television.

There is a lot to be said for this approach as captures what films meant in a particular social and historical context.

I think it also brings us back to the central question of whether or not we should even attempt to adjust for inflation.

The modern day film industry is structured around newly released films, so they have a vested interest in not doing it.

After all 20th Century Fox don’t exactly want to promote Avatar on billboards as:

“The biggest film of all time – apart from Gone with the Wind!”

At the same time, there is some value in trying to account for different eras and the impact particular films had.

Theatrical box office can sometimes be a little misleading.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) initially failed at the box office, but was the most rented film on video in 1995 and now regularly tops the IMDb 250 (it is currently ahead of its perennial rival The Godfather).

The Bourne Identity (2002) was a decent hit at the box office, but went on to become the most rented film in America on VHS and DVD in 2003, thus paving the way for the greater success of the following sequels.

These are exceptions but show what impact word of mouth can have in an era of home entertainment.

Perhaps a more useful way of measuring the box office over time is a combination of considering what films made the most money in the current era, along with checking what was successful in a particular year.

It isn’t perfect but shows the complications that can lie under what seems to be simple facts.

> Box Office Mojo’s list of the highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation)
> Wikipedia’s list of the highest grossing films of all time
> Forbes article from 2010 on Avatar vs Gone with the Wind

UK Blu-ray Releases: Monday 9th November 2009

UK Blu-ray Releases 09-11-09

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BLU-RAY PICKS

Brüno (Universal): After the success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen returns with another mock-documentary comedy, this time playing the flamboyant Austrian fashionista Brüno, who wreaks havoc at a fashion show and then travels to America, where the fun continues.

Directed by Larry Charles, stand out sequences involve Bruno upsetting orthodox Jews and Palestinian terrorists; an uncomfortable appearance on a TV chat show with an adopted African child; an extended attempt to ‘become straight’ with the help of religion, martial arts and the US military; and a truly riotous climax involving a cage wrestling match in Arkansas. [Buy the Blu-ray at Amazon UK]

Extras on the Blu-ray include:

  • 1080P 1.85:1 Widescreen
  • English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Latin American Spanish and Canadian French 5.1 DTS Surround
  • English SDH, Latin American Spanish and Canadian French subtitles
  • Alternative Scenes
  • Deleted Scenes (includes 1 extra scene not found on the DVD)
  • Extended Scenes (includes 1 extra scene not found on the DVD)
  • An Interview with Lloyd Robinson
  • Enhanced Commentary – Go behind the cameras and hear the true stories of how Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles pulled off their unscripted stunts with celebrities, politicians and other unsuspecting people

The extras on Blu-ray are all 1080P and have a listed running time of 1hr 15mins approx (not including the commentary).

Gone with the Wind: 70th Anniversary Edition (Warner): The classic 1939 romantic drama based on the Margaret Mitchell novel has gotten the full re-release treatment by Warner Bros.

Set in the South during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, it follows the life of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of a plantation owner and her relationship with Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Featuring supporting performances by Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell and Hattie McDaniel, it is still a beloved classic of cinema despite lasting nearly 4 hours.

Famous set pieces include the burning of Atlanta (which used a piece of scenery left over from King Kong) and one of the most famous closing lines of any film. In a year littered with classic films (1939 also included The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach and Ninotchka), Gone With the Wind won ten Oscars, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African-American to win the award). [Buy the Blu-ray at Amazon UK]

Heat (Warner): The classic 1995 crime film directed by Michael Mann and starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro gets its debut on Blu-ray.

Set in Los Angeles, it explores the lives of Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), a methodical professional thief and Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) an impulsive LAPD homicide detective and those around them as they come into conflict with one another.

The supporting cast includes Val Kilmer as Chris, one of McCauley’s partners; Ashley Judd as his wife Charlene; Amy Brenneman; Jon Voight; Natalie Portman; Diane Venora; Hank Azaria; William Fichtner and (in a cameo) Henry Rollins.

One of the best crime films of the 1990s, the big selling point at the time was the pairing of De Niro and Pacino, but there is much more to the film than just the cast. Mann creates a rich atmosphere and shoots the action set-pieces brilliantly, plus Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography all add to the mix.

The general vibe with the HD transfer appears to be that it is good but not great. Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has posted some comparisons of the DVD and Blu-ray versions here and says:

This Blu-ray presentation is significantly ahead of the DVD counterparts but doesn’t exhibit the demonstrative depth and detail that many have come to expect from this new format.

If you are a fan of the film, it is likely you purchased the excellent 2-disc DVD which came out a few years ago. However, if you have made the jump to Blu-ray then this is still definitely worth purchasing as it is still one of Michael Mann’s best films and a reach audio and visual feast. [Buy the Blu-ray at Amazon UK]

ALSO OUT

Night at the Museum 2 (Fox) [Buy it at Amazon UK]
The Informers (EIV) [Buy it at Amazon UK]
The Negotiator (Warner) [Buy it at Amazon UK]

UK DVD & Blu-ray Releases for November 2009
> Browse more Blu-ray releases at Amazon UK and Play
Check out the latest UK cinema releases including A Christmas Carol, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Jennifer’s Body and Paper Heart (W/C Friday 6th November 2009)

UK DVD Releases: Monday 9th November 2009

UK DVD Releases 09-11-09

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N.B. For the foreseeable future I’m going to separate DVDs and Blu-rays into different posts. Part of the reason is that quite a few older films are being released on Blu-ray and I don’t want there to be any confusion.

I’m also going to put Amazon affiliate links alongside each release to make it easier to buy them.

DVD PICKS

Brüno (Universal): After the success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen returns with another mock-documentary comedy, this time playing the flamboyant Austrian fashionista Brüno, who wreaks havoc at a fashion show and then travels to America, where the fun continues.

Directed by Larry Charles, stand out sequences involve Bruno debating the Middle East conflict with orthodox Jews and Palestinian terrorists; an uncomfortable appearance on a TV chat show with an adopted African child; an extended attempt to ‘become straight’ with the help of religion, martial arts and the US military; and a truly riotous climax involving a cage wrestling match in Arkansas. [Buy the DVD at Amazon UK]

Extras include:

  • Alternative Scenes
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Extended Scenes
  • An Interview with Lloyd Robinson
  • Enhanced Commentary – The true stories of how Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles pulled off their unscripted stunts with celebrities, politicians and other unsuspecting people.

Gone with the Wind: 70th Anniversary Edition (Warner): The classic 1939 romantic drama based on the Margaret Mitchell novel has gotten the full re-release treatment by Warner Bros.

Set in the South during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, it follows the life of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of a plantation owner and her relationship with Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Featuring supporting performances by Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell and Hattie McDaniel, it is still a beloved classic of cinema despite lasting nearly 4 hours.

Famous set pieces include the burning of Atlanta (which used a piece of scenery left over from King Kong) and one of the most famous closing lines of any film. In a year littered with classic films (1939 also included The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach and Ninotchka), Gone With the Wind won ten Oscars, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African-American to win the award). [Buy the DVD at Amazon UK]

Extras on the DVD include:

Disc 1 The Movie, Part 1

  • Remastered feature with Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio
  • Commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer

Disc 2 The Movie, Part 2
Remastered feature
Commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer
Offer for a numbered Limited Edition copy of the Original 1939 Poster

Extras on the 5-disc version include:

Disc 3

  • About The Movie
  • The Making of a Legend documentary (1989 TV Special) (Narrated by Christopher Plummer)
  • Restoring a Legend – Chronicles the film/video restoration process
  • Dixie Hails Gone with the Wind -1939 Premiere newsreel
  • 1940 MGM historical short – The Old South
  • Atlanta Civil War Centennial 1961 premiere newsreel
  • International prologue
  • Foreign language version sample scenes
  • Theatrical Trailers

Disc 4

  • About The Cast
  • Melanie Remembers: Reflections by Olivia de Havilland – Exclusive 2004 Documentary
  • Cast profile – Gable: The King Remembered
  • Cast profile – Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond
  • The Supporting Players – Cameo portraits of an unforgettable ensemble
  • At Tara
  • The O’Hara Plantation in Georgia
  • Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara
  • Barbara O’Neill as Ellen, his wife
  • Their Daughters
  • Evelyn Keyes as Suellen
  • Ann Rutherford as Carreen
  • The house servants
  • Hattie McDaniel as Mammy
  • Oscar Polk as Pork
  • Butterfly McQueen as Prissy
  • At Twelve Oaks
  • Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes
  • Rand Brooks as Charles Hamilton, her brother
  • Carroll Nye as Frank Kennedy, a guest
  • In Atlanta
  • Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat Hamilton
  • Eddie Anderson as Uncle Peter, her coachman
  • Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade
  • Jane Darwell as Mrs. Merriwether
  • Ona Munson as Belle Watling
  • Cammie King as Bonnie Blue Butler

Disc 5

  • New Bonus Disc
  • Warner Bros. Home Entertainment presents 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year – New documentary about Hollywood’s watershed year narrated by Kenneth Branagh
  • Gone with the Wind: The Legend Lives On — Exploring the legacy of the most beloved film through illuminating interviews, footage and visits to historical sites, events and museums
  • Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara Wars 1980 WBTV Special never before on home video

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney): One of the greatest Disney films ever made is being re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. Made in 1937, the concept of reviving a well-known Grimm’s Fairy Tale was initially greeted with scepticism. But Walt Disney invested three years, $1,500,000, and the combined talents of 570 artists into the film.

The result was a film that was acknowledged a classic and also earned an incredible $8,500,000 dollars in gross rentals during the Great Depression. The story, characters and animation are all of the highest quality and notice the clever contrast between Snow White and Prince Charming (drawn realistically) and the Seven Dwarfs (rendered in the rounded, caricatured manner of Disney’s short-subject characters). [Buy the DVD from Amazon UK]

The extras on the DVD include:

  • Audio Commentary with Walt Disney
  • Snow White Returns
  • The One That Started It All
  • The Princess and the Frog Sneak Peek
  • Someday My Prince Will Come by Tiffany Thornton
  • Dylan & Cole Sprouse Blu-ray is Suite!
  • Learn How To Take Your Favourite Movies on the Go (Disneyfile)
  • Dopey’s Wild Mine Ride
  • Animation Voice Talent
  • Disney Through the Decades
  • ”Heigh-Ho” Karaoke Sing-Along

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ALSO OUT

Desperate Housewives Season 5 (Disney) [Buy from Amazon UK]
Ghost Story (1974) (Nucleus Films) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Tales of the Gold Monkey: The Complete Series (Fabulous Films) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
The Informers (EIV) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Trinity (Fremantle) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Lisbon Story (Axiom Films) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Night at the Museum 2 (Fox) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Russell Brand – Scandalous (4DVD) [Buy it from Amazon UK]
Russell Howard – Dingledodies (4DVD) [Buy it from Amazon UK]

> UK DVD & Blu-ray Releases for November 2009
> Browse more DVD Releases at Amazon UK and Play
> Check the latest DVD prices at DVD Price Check
> Check out the latest UK cinema releases including A Christmas Carol, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Jennifer’s Body and Paper Heart (W/C Friday 6th November 2009)