Image Credit: WETACongratulations to Avatar, James Cameron’s CG-laden sci-fi opus, for its spectacular box-office success. Yesterday, in only its most recent milestone, Avatar became the most popular movie…since Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace. Yes, I’m well aware that Avatar also surpassed Titanic to become the planet’s biggest box-office grosser. But the fact remains that, due to the rising price of movie tickets, more North Americans saw Phantom Menace in the theater than have seen Avatar so far. In fact, Avatar currently ranks 26th all-time when you adjust for inflation and probably won’t crack the top-10.

I’m not trying to diminish Avatar‘s truly awesome impact, but a little perspective can’t hurt. Yes, James Cameron has the two highest-grossing films of all-time. But in terms of tickets sold — arguably a better reflection of popularity — Titanic and Avatar rank 6th and 26th. Compare that to Steven Spielberg’s resume, which includes No. 4 (E.T.), No. 7 (Jaws), No. 16 (Raiders of the Lost Ark, and No. 17 (Jurassic Park). And don’t get me started on this country’s unrivaled affection for No. 1 Gone With the Wind, which played to packed houses for years.

Comparing the success of blockbusters from different Hollywood eras is a complex and perhaps futile assignment, due to new revenue streams, international markets, etc., etc. But it’s still worth noting that films of yesteryear were every bit the pop-cultural phenomena as today’s Avatar or The Dark Knight, if not more so. And from a bottom-line point of view, forgettaboutit. Star Wars grossed $461 million stateside; E.T. checked out with $435 million. Both films were made for less than $12 million each. No matter Avatar‘s eventual tally, those rates of return will probably never be equaled by a studio film.

Do you find these comparisons and debates as fascinating as I do, or am I simply grasping at straws to defend the blockbusters of my youth?

  • Movie
  • 162 minutes