How Does ‘Avatar’ Stack Up Against Past Box-Office Champs?

With ticket prices adjusted for inflation, 'Gone With the Wind' and 'Star Wars' blow past the sci-fi blockbuster.

If there’s one thing movie fans have read repeatedly over the past 12 years, it’s that no film could ever approach the box-office numbers of “Titanic.” Now, “Avatar” has pulled off the impossible and taken the crown, with James Cameron overtaking, well, James Cameron, grossing $1.858 billion worldwide. But is the movie really #1?

” ‘Avatar’ actually has quite a long ways to go in terms of actual tickets sold,” explained Jeff Bock, box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, a company that monitors theatrical receipts and analysis. “Right now, with adjusted grosses considered, ‘Avatar’ would be at #25 domestically.”

What’s adjusted gross? Well, it’s a box-office statistic that plays more fairly with the blockbusters of generations that came before us. And frankly, “Avatar” fans, you should give a damn.

“Adjusted box office is the actual box office when factoring in inflation to the grosses of films respective to the increase of average ticket prices each year,” Bock explained, pointing out that ticket prices are hovering around $10 now, compared to somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 cents back in 1939 — when what some consider the real all-time box-office champ hit theaters. “['Gone With the Wind'] is widely considered the top-grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ when adjusted, would have grossed $1.485 billion domestically.”

In theory, if the Clark Gable/ Vivien Leigh classic was released in 2010 and charged modern-day ticket prices, it would have nearly tripled the current domestic gross of “Avatar,” and it’s not the only one. Here are the top-five films domestically, when adjusted for inflation:

1. “Gone with the Wind,” $1.485 billion
2. “Star Wars,” $1.309 billion
3. “The Sound of Music,” $1.046 billion
4. “E.T.,” $1.042 billion
5. “The Ten Commandments,” $962 million

But before “Avatar” fans start screaming about it being unrealistic to judge the film against an era when movies didn’t have to compete against the Internet, cable TV and all the rest of our modern-day entertainment options, they might want to consider this: “Avatar” needs to nearly double its domestic gross — which currently sits at #2 on the all-time list with $552.8 million — if it wants to catch the inflation-adjusted take of Cameron’s “Titanic” at $943 million.

“Consider that 72 percent of the ‘Avatar’ gross is from 3-D, which charge a premium of $3 to $5 extra per ticket,” Bock said. “So, domestically speaking, if ‘Avatar’ is at $554 million, then $399 million (72 percent) translates to about 38.1 million tickets sold at a conservative estimate of $10.48 per ticket. … The other $155 million that ‘Avatar’ has grossed in 2-D accounts for 20.7 million more tickets sold — for a grand total of roughly 59 million tickets sold.”

While approximately 59 million people have seen “Avatar” in the U.S., 138 million moviegoers saw “Titanic.” “Ticket-price average was $4.59, and that translates to 130.8 million tickets sold domestically, as it grossed $600.7 million,” Bock said. “So, as you can plainly see, ‘Avatar’ has a long way to go to surpass the number of people that actually went to see ‘Titanic.’ The all-time box-office record may have sunk, but the number of people on Titanic vs. Pandora isn’t even close.”

“Gone With the Wind,” meanwhile, sold 863 million tickets compared to the ‘Avatar’ total of 59 million. But although such numbers might set records as impossible to reach as Joe DiMaggio’s baseball hitting streak, “Avatar” fans can feel good about the impending franchise dominance.

“Make no mistake, this will become a trilogy, if not more,” Bock said of sequel talk happily spread by the likes of Cameron himself . “And it will then likely become one of the golden franchises in Hollywood, à la ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Star Wars’ and the ‘Harry Potter’ films.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Avatar.”

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