Sinking Titanic?

July 30, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli
Note: Numbers in this piece refer to domestic gross, not world-wide gross. While the latter total is widely available for films released in the last 20 years, estimates of international grosses become increasingly unreliable the older a title is.

The race is on… Can The Dark Knight topple Titanic from its perch as the highest grossing motion picture of all time? At this point, it looks to be a photo-finish. Many prognosticators have the movie, which passed $300 million in its 10th day of release, getting to $400 million on day 18. (That would be Monday, August 4.) After that, it will likely take another two-to-three weeks to reach $500 million. For those who are keeping track, we're now around August 20. The race to $600 million (and Titanic) would take us into early September, assuming the $500 million benchmark of August 20 is achieved. The problem is, the last half of August is historically a dreadful time for movie theater attendance, and the first weeks of September are even worse. On the plus-side, The Dark Knight won't have much competition. On the minus-side, vacations and the start of school may drain away the crowds needed to boost The Dark Knight over the hump.

In one sense, however, it's much ado about nothing. Not to diminish the immensity of reaching $600 million - no film has come close to that pinnacle in 11 years - but it's not as important as it might seem. $600 million doesn't beat Titanic. In fact, it doesn't come close. The Dark Knight would have to top $900 million to attain that goal, and not even the most optimistic prognosticator believes that's realistic. In fact, $601 million is "only" good enough for 19th place on the all-time list, sandwiched between The Graduate (at #18) and The Phantom Menace(currently #19). Still ahead of The Dark Knight would be titles like The Sting, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Titanic. In fact, Titanic isn't #1 when it comes to box office, it's #6. The Top 5 are, in order of descending economic accrual: Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T., and The Ten Commandments.

Apples must be compared to apples, and oranges to oranges. It would make more sense to use ticket sales rather than $$ to gauge a movie's popularity, but it's not as sexy. So, to even the playing field, all grosses must be calculated in 2008 dollars, so any movie released prior to 2008 must have its numbers adjusted for inflation. Therefore, Gone with the Wind, despite having made around $200,000 during its initial 1939 release and several subsequent re-releases, checks in at $1,430,000,000. That's 1.43 BILLION. Star Wars, The Sound of Music, and E.T. are also part of that $1 billion club, which is unlikely to gain any new members soon, if ever. The highest grossing film to have achieved its total without benefit of a re-release is Titanic, at $908 million. In the Top 20, there are only three films that didn't have re-releases: Titanic, Jurassic Park, and The Phantom Menace. The Dark Knight could make it four.

In keeping with the "apples to apples" comparison, it's unfair to compare box office grosses for post-1950 films with their pre-1950 counterparts. The latter had the benefit of being the only form of electronic visual entertainment around. The former had to compete with television. By the same token, it's unreasonable to contrast pre-1985 releases with those that came out after that date due to the impact of home video. Before 1985, it was common for movies to be re-released. After 1985, that was no longer the case.

So, to put The Dark Knight in context, if it surpasses Titanic's actual $601 million gross, it will be #3 among post- 1985 films, behind Titanic and Jurassic Park (actual gross: $357 million; adjusted: $610 million). It wouldn't take much of a surge for it to leapfrog Jurassic Park into second place. But, when it comes to Titanic, The Dark Knight won't supplant it as the post-1985 box office phenomenon. That boat has sailed and nothing, not even the Caped Crusader, will be able to catch it.