False cur­rency counts

Box- of­fice fig­ures are true indicators of noth­ing much at all, writes Mark Jud­dery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

BRI­TAIN’S film­mak­ing com­mu­nity was abuzz: in 1997, The Full Monty , a low- bud­get com­edy about Sh­effield steel­work­ers, was edg­ing to­wards the Bri­tish box- of­fice record, held by Hol­ly­wood block­buster Juras­sic Park . In a se­ries of ad­ver­tise­ments, pa­tri­otic Bri­tons were urged to see Monty so a lo­cal film could beat Hol­ly­wood. The ploy worked. The Full Monty soon be­came Bri­tain’s all- time box- of­fice cham­pion. Then, a few months later, came Ti­tanic .

Aus­tralians didn’t need such pa­tri­otic cam­paigns. For more than a decade, our all- time box- of­fice leader had been a lo­cal film, Croc­o­dile Dundee ( 1986). But when Ti­tanic started break­ing records world­wide, the Aus­tralian box of­fice was no ex­cep­tion.

So how did Aus­tralia’s film com­mu­nity re­act? Some were cel­e­brat­ing. Del­e­gates at the Aus­tralian Movie Con­ven­tion, held at the Gold Coast, were in­vited to wit­ness his­tory in the mak­ing, as 20th Cen­tury Fox was pre­sented with a Gold Film of the Year Award for knock­ing our own Croc­o­dile Dundee off its pedestal. Cul­tural cringe, it seemed, was alive and well.

To add fur­ther in­sult, Croc­o­dile Dundee was re­port­edly over­taken in 2004 by The Lord of the Rings: The Re­turn of the King and Shrek 2 . The for­mer cham­pion, the lo­cal boy, doesn’t even get bronze. Sandy Ge­orge, writ­ing in Bri­tish mag­a­zine ScreenDaily , quipped that the Aus­tralian film in­dus­try should go into mourn­ing.

For­tu­nately, there is some good news. None of th­ese films over­took Croc­o­dile Dundee . And de­spite all you have heard, Ti­tanic is not the world’s all- time box- of­fice leader. Quite sim­ply, of­fi­cial box- of­fice records are all hype.

Com­mon hype, of course. Trade mag­a­zines and news bul­letins still fre­quently an­nounce, with some ex­cite­ment, that a box- of­fice record has tum­bled, whether it be in the cat­e­gory of ro­man­tic com­edy ( the present record holder is Hitch ), Tom Cruise films ( War of the Worlds ), open­ing week­ends ( Spi­der- Man 3 ) or even Tues­day ticket sales ( Trans­form­ers ).

Just as Bri­tons were moved to do their duty for The Full Monty and thou­sands joined queues to see Ti­tanic , the magic phrase — box­of­fice record — is big news, draw­ing even more au­di­ences to the cin­ema.

Taken at face value, the fig­ures are cor­rect, ac­cord­ing to the web­site Box Of­fice Mojo. But one thing rarely men­tioned by the me­dia, cer­tainly never by the stu­dios, is in­fla­tion.

Ticket prices have risen con­sid­er­ably through the years: this is why, de­spite all the fears of piracy and home DVD units threat­en­ing the movie busi­ness, eight of the 10 high­est gross­ing films were made in the past decade.

When ad­justed for in­fla­tion, how­ever, it’s a dif­fer­ent story. In the US, the high­est gross­ing film by far — the one seen by the most peo­ple — is still Gone with the Wind . Re­leased in 1939, it earned a size­able $ US200 mil­lion; ad­justed for in­fla­tion, that’s closer to $ US1.4 bil­lion.

It is fol­lowed by Star Wars ( 1977), The Sound of Mu­sic ( 1965), E. T. ( 1982), The Ten Com­mand­ments ( 1956) and, in a hu­mil­i­at­ing sixth place, Ti­tanic .

Gone with the Wind , Star Wars and E. T. all had re- re­leases in later decades, which are counted in their box- of­fice to­tals. So it’s dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine the re­li­a­bil­ity of th­ese ad­justed fig­ures. They are so far ahead of Ti­tanic , though, that the boat film doesn’t stand a chance.

The Aus­tralian fig­ures are slightly dif­fer­ent, but Ti­tanic is still con­signed to sixth place. Gone with the Wind still ranks higher, but it comes fourth, well be­hind Croc­o­dile Dundee in sec­ond.

Like Ti­tanic , Paul Ho­gan’s film was never our top earner. That hon­our, for rea­sons un­known, goes to The Sound of Mu­sic . Con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who adore that film, per­haps it’s is not sur­pris­ing.

Movie pro­mot­ers like to en­hance their fig­ures. Even be­fore it could claim the great­est earn­ings, Ti­tanic was al­ready claim­ing the ti­tle of most ex­pen­sive film in his­tory. At first, this leak sounded like an em­bar­rass­ing reve­la­tion. Pre­vi­ous claimants of the ti­tle, in­clud­ing Cleopa­tra and Water­world , are still re­garded as flops, de­spite turn­ing a profit. ( Cleopa­tra was the big­gest hit of 1963 in the US.) High bud­gets are equated with Hol­ly­wood ego and flam­boy­ance. They also sell films.

So how much did Ti­tanic cost? Of­fi­cially, $ US200 mil­lion, but even that fig­ure is de­bat­able. Some of Hol­ly­wood’s most creative peo­ple are the ac­coun­tants. In­dus­try in­sid­ers sug­gested that Water­world cost far less than the $ US175 mil­lion that was claimed, but it was upped for pro­mo­tional rea­sons: au­di­ences want to know they are get­ting their money’s worth or at least find out how a film can cost so much.

Since Ti­tanic , four films have of­fi­cially sur­passed its bud­get, and the direc­tors haven’t been shy to ad­mit that. ‘‘ I think of my­self as be­ing re­ally lucky,’’ said Mike Newell, di­rec­tor of Harry Pot­ter and the Gob­let of Fire , in 2005. ‘‘ I’m go­ing to make the most ex­pen­sive film ever.’’ Th­ese films are not like or­di­nary pro­duc­tions: they’re sold as world events. ( Newell’s film, at a mere $ US150 mil­lion, didn’t even crack the top 10.)

Iron­i­cally, ul­tra- low- bud­get films have pro­moted their thrifti­ness. El Mariachi ( 1992) al­legedly cost only $ US7000, in­spir­ing au­di­ences to watch it and dis­cover how a film could be made so cheaply. Some have sug­gested the fig­ure was just an­other pub­lic­ity stunt.

Even amid talk of the most ex­pen­sive film, in­fla­tion is still ig­nored. It would be mad­ness to try to over­take the true leader. This is Cleopa­tra , an aber­ra­tion in 1963, which would cost $ US290 mil­lion in to­day’s money. For the record, the ad­justed list of 20 most- ex­pen­sive films in­cludes 16 from the past decade.

Hol­ly­wood may no longer at­tract the au­di­ences it did in the past, but it may have sur­passed its reck­less spend­ing. If you be­lieve the hype.

Sinker: De­spite the hype, Ti­tanic is not the world’s all- time box- of­fice leader. Tak­ing in­fla­tion into ac­count, it comes in at sixth

Spools gold: Paul Ho­gan in Croc­o­dile Dundee

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