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How Do We Measure Box Office Success

Considering the Value of a Movie

Chris Chaisson


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5 minutes

📸: Photo from Pixabay

In recent years, pandemic notwithstanding, the box office has seen record numbers from blockbusters. Despite the prevalence of pirating, many of the highest grossing movies in film history have been fairly modern. The year 2019 set a record for global box office earnings with $42.3 billion. Though this number clearly dipped in 2020, the film industry had seen increased profits despite a plethora of other increasingly popular options for entertainment.

Many factors contributed to these unprecedented turnouts. For one, the advancements in visual effects and sound quality make the movie-going experience more appealing, specifically for the biggest action movie franchises (The Fast and the Furious, Transformers, Marvel, etc.). Additionally, the largest movie theater chains have opened new branches over the years and scaled up their venues to attract customers. Not only are the marquees and glass windows bigger and fancier, but the concessions have become more diversified. Some theaters have even carved out space for restaurants near the entrance and acquired liquor licenses to entice those of age.

All these tidbits lead to the biggest contributor to increased box office numbers: movie tickets cost more now.

A trip to the movies used to be a fun activity for a group of teenage friends or a young couple that didn’t have money to make more expensive plans. Enthusiastic cinephiles would hang out at the movies all day, maybe taking in two or three flicks and just hanging out with their buddies. What the box office represented culturally has since changed. Now, between the tickets and the concessions, going to see The Avengers cost about as much as going to see the Yankees. The year I was born, 1989, the average price of a movie ticket was $3.99**. While my hands weren’t big enough to hold four dollars at the time, that price provides evidence of a time when attending the movies was a less grandiose experience. Today, the average movie ticket price is $9.16**, and the most popular theater chains are all charging much more. Likewise, many venues have increased the number of private screenings and Q&As in recent years, which are primarily attended by members of the industry or patrons who spend the most money there. Research shows that 11% of the U.S./Canada population accounts for nearly half of all tickets sold, and frequent moviegoers tend to have more key technology products. Both findings reflect a possible class distinction on who attends the movie theater most frequently.

As the future of cinema holds more rewards programs, QR codes and email confirmations, movie theaters likely won’t return to the minimally staffed, dollar-matinee feel that they had in the past. Many of them have simply embraced more upscale branding efforts. Whether good or bad, the modern and lavish atmosphere of the Cineplex makes box office sales difficult to compare to the era of more simplistic, communal venues.

Returning to the discussion of the highest grossing movies, can we judge a movie’s popularity solely by what it grosses now? Once we account for the change in the cinematic experience as well as ramped up marketing efforts through T-shirts and theme park rides, Orson Welles seems to have been at a competitive disadvantage. What if we judged movies less by the dollar amount and instead checked the ticket stubs? How many tickets were actually sold for any specific motion picture? This re-examination of a movie’s earnings could highlight films that achieved extreme popularity when cost of living was low and other films that simply benefited more from inflation. Though not a perfect equation, I would suggest taking the dollar amount a movie grossed and divide it by the average ticket price of that year.

Click the charts below to see what the Highest Grossing Movies vs. Movies with the Most Ticket Sales looks like.

Chart by Gross Sales
Download PDF • 133KB

Chart by Tickets Sold
Download PDF • 132KB

There are very few surprises in these two tables as a whole. The most popular movies are the highest budgeted and most well-marketed, regardless of what measure you use. Nonetheless, contrasting dollar amounts against the number of tickets sold illustrates that some of the most popular movies would be even higher on our list if they had premiered after the industry-wide renovation of modern cinema. For instance, despite an exorbitant dollar amount for American Sniper, the film benefited significantly from an increase in ticket prices. Conversely, the original Star Wars was incredibly popular but premiered at a time when movie tickets were less than $3. Had Titanic been released after theaters introduced their expanded menus and 4K screens, it may have set attendance records never to be broken.

Cultural shifts never stop happening, so the future remains to be seen. Maybe movie theaters will scale back down as everyone retreats to their HBO Max accounts. Or maybe they’ll continue their upward trajectory and offer lobster dinners with Courvoisier to wash it down. Either way, it’s always worthwhile to think critically about the record-breaking statistics being thrown in your face. But right now, time for a matinee.

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