thinking stiff

The MOME List – Top Movies of the Modern Era

Posted in movies by thinkingstiff on 2013/02/02

All lists of top-grossing movies everywhere are wrong. They are all based on gross totals without adjusting for inflation. Comparing dollar amounts from different years without adjusting for inflation is total nonsense and is not done anywhere else regularly except for movie lists. Reporting based on these numbers is just lying.

Studios love these lists because it makes it seem like every few months they have a new top-grossing movie. Newspapers and movie blogs love it as well because it gives them something to talk about. But when they say things like, “[Skyfall is] only a week away from becoming the highest-grossing Bond film in history”[forbes] and “Django Unchained triumphs as highest grossing Tarantino film in US”[guardian], it is simply not true. The highest-grossing Bond film is “Thunderball” at an inflation-adjusted $581,944,000[boxofficemojo], compared to “Skyfall” at roughly $302,000,000 (at the time of this writing)[boxofficemojo]. “Pulp Fiction” is Tarantino’s highest-grossing film at an inflation-adjusted $197,508,600[boxofficemojo] compared to “Django Unchained” at roughly $151,00,000 (at the time of this writing)[boxofficemojo].

The data-heavy site, Box Office Mojo, is one of the few exceptions in that it allows you to see most charts in an inflation-adjusted version (it is where I get the data for The MOME List). But that is not the default and all the news on its front page is based on unadjusted amounts.

One of the problems with adjusting movies for inflation is figuring out the best way to do it. Box Office Mojo’s method is to take total gross, divide by average movie price for the year the movie was made to get total tickets, and then multiply the ticket count by the average ticket price for the year you want to adjust to. I have played with many different methods, including using actual inflation values of the whole economy based on Consumer Price Index and adjusting ticket price to that (which doesn’t match average ticket price exactly). I am going to incorporate that into The MOME List in the future, but for now it is using ticket price average.

There are other considerations when comparing movies of different eras, and Box Office Mojo’s Adjusting for Ticket Price Inflation covers the basics. I have spent a great deal of time playing with the data testing some different theories. I took into account total population, total movie theaters, economic strength, and total movies released at the time. None of them changed the ranking in any significant way. It seems the average ticket price method is good enough.

A limitation of an inflation-adjusted list is that it can only be based on US grosses. With drastically different release schedules, theater densities, and inflation values, it is impossible to include foreign grosses in an inflation-adjusted list in any meaningful way.

The Box Office Mojo inflation-adjusted list still has some issues (besides the fact that no one, not even Box Office Mojo, uses it for anything) that prevent it from being a useful list for today’s top movies. Take a look.

Box Office Mojo – All Time Box Office Domestic Grosses – Adjusted for ticket price inflation

It is dominated by extremely old movies. This in itself would not be bad if all the movies on the list could be meaningfully compared to each other. I argue they cannot. Take “Gone With The Wind (1939)” and “Titanic (1997)”. When “Gone With The Wind” was released, average ticket price was $0.23, or a CPI-based inflation-adjusted $2.64 in 1997, when Titanic was released. The average ticket price in 1997 was $4.59. So a movie ticket was substantially cheaper in 1939, compared to everything else, than it was in 1997. The other, much more important, difference is that in 1939 the public did not have TVs, cable, VCRs, DVDs, or the internet. There was no other way to consume pre-recorded visual entertainment. Everyone went to the movies; it is all they had. In 1997, going to a theater to see a movie was a completely different social experience, and one of dozens of ways to consume media. It just does not make sense to compare these two movies in the same list.

So what defines the “modern era” of movies? I say it is the point when most active movie goers had access to see movies of their choosing in other formats fairly easily. I am also saying that is 1985. That is the year Blockbuster Video opened and VCR saturation hit 30% of US households.[entmerch] You could argue that as people got more and more ways to consume, like DVD and the internet, and when saturation neared 100% that the “modern era” moved with it. I considered this, but do not think it matters. The format for seeing a movie outside of a theater is irrelevant. It is either at a theater or it is not. And with 30% total household saturation, I estimate 65% of active movie goes had access to VCRs, since movie lovers were the early adopters. Active movie goers are the kind that affect gross in a significant way.

Also, after looking at the results with different years as the cutoff, the 1985 list feels right. In the 27 years the list covers, four of the top 25 movies are from the last five years and four are from the first five years. That is a pretty even distribution, which is what I would expect from a fairly new list comparing meaningfully-comparable items. As the list ages, I think it will become more difficult to get on this list.

So I present: The MOME List.

Movie Year Gross Standard   Adjusted  
1 Titanic 1997 $1,053,991,400 2 +1 5 +4
2 Avatar 2009 $756,646,000 1 -1 14 +12
3 Star Wars I – The Phantom Menace 1999 $702,627,900 5 +2 16 +13
4 The Lion King 1994 $693,559,200 11 +7 17 +13
5 Jurassic Park 1993 $670,681,400 22 +17 20 +15
6 Forrest Gump 1994 $611,084,900 27 +21 24 +18
7 Marvel’s The Avengers 2012 $597,256,700 3 -4 27 +20
8 The Dark Knight 2008 $579,262,700 4 -4 29 +21
9 Shrek 2 2004 $552,776,200 8 -1 32 +23
10 Spider-Man 2002 $540,591,300 14 +4 36 +26
11 Independence Day 1996 $538,911,800 38 +27 37 +26
12 Home Alone 1990 $526,972,100 54 +42 38 +26
13 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 2006 $502,808,700 10 -3 46 +33
14 Batman 1989 $489,786,900 71 +57 50 +36
15 LOTR: The Return of the King 2003 $479,556,900 19 +4 52 +37
16 Finding Nemo 2003 $479,429,400 17 +1 53 +37
17 Spider-Man 2 2004 $468,035,100 20 +3 55 +38
18 The Passion Of The Christ 2004 $464,503,700 21 +3 59 +41
19 Star Wars III – Revenge of the Sith 2005 $461,545,300 18 -1 60 +41
20 Back To The Future 1985 $459,414,100 115 +95 61 +41
21 LOTR: The Two Towers 2002 $449,102,700 24 +3 62 +41
22 The Dark Knight Rises 2012 $448,139,100 7 -15 63 +41
23 The Sixth Sense 1999 $447,965,600 45 +22 64 +41
24 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2001 $435,003,000 31 +7 69 +45
25 LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001 $426,338,400 33 +8 77 +52

The Standard column shows the shitty, unadjusted rank that everyone everywhere uses. The Adjusted column is the rank in Box Office Mojo’s adjusted list with all movies. The columns next to those are the change from that rank to the current rank.

Some notable movies that I expect to see atop lists like this, like “Star Wars” and “E.T.”, are missing. And some horrible pieces of crap, like “Home Alone” and “Independence Day”, have crept up the ranks on this list. But this is not a list of great movies, it is a list of movies that a lot of people saw in theaters. One surprise was “Back To The Future”. It is a great movie, but I had no idea it was so popular when it was in theaters.

This list will improve when I add CPI-based inflation into the calculation, but for now this is the best top-grossing movie list that exists.

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