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What Does it Actually Mean That ‘Avatar’ is the Top-Grossing Film Again

20th Century / Avatar

When Avengers: Endgame released, it surpassed Avatar as the movie with the highest worldwide box office gross of all time, but just barely. Avatar’s recent re-release in China gave that film enough additional revenue to retake the top spot as the highest-grossing movie of all time, but does that achievement even mean anything?

The most popular movie of all time is still Gone With the Wind. Neither Avatar nor Endgame came close to selling as many tickets as Gone With the Wind or Star Wars, for that matter.

Money loses value over time, and we call that phenomenon inflation. What used to cost a nickel costs a dime, then a quarter, then a dollar. Because a movie ticket in 1939 cost 23 cents and that same movie ticket today is almost $10, the amount of money the film made tells us very little other than how rich studio executives are.

Box Office Mojo projects that over 200 million people in the United States saw Gone With the Wind and 175 million saw Star Wars; Avatar and Avengers: Endgame were both around 96 million, with Avatar already having sold more tickets than Endgame before it was re-released.

Now I did say in the United States and let’s talk about that. When Gone With the Wind released in 1939, the US population was 130 million people; by the time Star Wars released in 1977, there were 220 million Americans. That number climbed to over 300 million by the time Avatar and Endgame came along. Gone With the Wind actually sold more tickets in the US than there were people living in the country at the time, while Endgame’s ticket sales were less than a third of the total population.

Of course, population and inflation aren’t the only changes that have happened since 1939. There’s a lot more to do now than there was then. The first modern smartphone, Apple’s iPhone, released in 2007. 1939 was the year of the first television broadcast, and televisions weren’t widely adopted until the 1950s. There just wasn’t much competing with movie theaters for people’s entertainment budget and leisure time.

That isn’t the whole story either, though. 1939’s second-highest-grossing film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, grossed about 1/6th of Gone With the Wind’s take, placing it somewhere close to Ghostbusters on the all-time adjusted domestic gross list. And I don’t mean the good Ghostbusters, I mean the Paul Feig Ghostbusters.

And so far, I’ve only been talking about US box office numbers, and that’s because films like Gone With the Wind didn’t have global releases. We weren’t exactly on great terms with Germany in 1939 and most countries only showed movies made in those countries at the time. There have been movie theaters in China as long as there have been movie theaters in the US, but they didn’t start showing foreign films until 1997. It’s a much more global marketplace today than it was 80 years ago.

The point is, and congratulations for making it through all of those statistics, but the point is that it’s nearly impossible to gauge the relative level of success of films across time. We can account for inflation, but not so much for inflation and population growth and changing market conditions and increased competition all at once.

Do we really need to, though? All the movies I mentioned are great movies (except Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters), so do we need a list to tell us mathematically which one is better? I like Star Wars better than the other movies I mentioned, and I’m sure every employee at Turner Classic Movies prefers Gone With the Wind. A lot of people clearly love Avatar and Avengers: Endgame, as well, too. Box office gross, even adjusted gross, just doesn’t tell us that much anymore.

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