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