Cinemath: Adjusting Box Office for Inflation and the Problem with Comparing GONE WITH THE WIND to STAR WARS to THE AVENGERS

     September 23, 2013

cinemath adjusted box office

The New York Times Best Seller list is based on the number of books sold.  Television ratings report how many people watched the program.  Broadway World posts the number of seats sold for each show each week alongside the gross.  Hell, you can see how many tickets each movie sold in Japan and France, yet in the domestic market (U.S. and Canada), we only get box office grosses.  Box office is a measure of profitability, not popularity.  Box office says the New Yorker who buys a $20 ticket for an IMAX 3D showing at the AMC Empire 25 is four times as important as the Illinoisian who buys a $5 ticket for a Sunday matinee at the AMC Mt Vernon 8.  Let the accountants worry about revenue—I only care about how many people saw the thing.

Eventually I’d like to find a better way to rank the highest-grossing movies of all time, but this edition of Cinemath will start where most other box office statisticians do: adjust for ticket price inflation.  More after the jump.

hard days night lineThe adjusted gross is calculated by dividing the total domestic gross by the average ticket price of that release year to estimate the number of tickets sold.  That number is multiplied by $8.16, the estimated average ticket price in 2013 to give a rough idea of what every movie made in “2013 dollars.”

A few notes on the available data:

  • Box Office Mojo posts the domestic box office for virtually every release since 1980.  I grabbed the top 100 domestic grosses for every year from 1980-2012.
  • Data on international grosses is also limited, and the average ticket price only covers theaters in the United States and Canada, anyway.  So we have to stick to domestic box office*.
  • Only the first theatrical run is considered—grosses from reissues are omitted.

These restrictions cause a few hiccups when ranking every movie on the all-time charts, but we’ll get to that on page two.

The chart below plots the adjusted gross of every top-grossing movie of the year from 1980-2012.  (Note: Javascript must be enabled to view these Google charts.  Hover over a data point to see the title and adjusted gross.)


Rain Man has the honor of the lowest adjusted gross on the list at $343 million.  Otherwise, most of the movies are between $350 million (Three Men and a Baby) and $692 million (The Phantom Menace).  The average is about $550 million.  That seems about right.  $350 million domestic is a total that would thrill any aspiring blockbuster.  Avatar and The Avengers proved it’s possible to break the $600 million barrier in the modern age.  Anything above $700 million puts you in the Hall of Fame.  That’s Jurassic Park ($703 million), Avatar ($816 million), E.T. ($997 million), and Titanic ($1.1 billion).

There is no noticeable trend in the qualification for top movie of the year over time, but it’s a different story for the other percentiles.  The graph below plots the adjusted gross for the movies ranked 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th every year.


I expected that adjusting for inflation would flatten the lines—that the threshold for each percentile would stay constant over time.  However, all the lines trend up.  The threshold for a top 10 movie in the 1980s was $125-$175 million in 2013 dollars.  Recent releases need an adjusted gross of at least $200 million to sneak into the top 10.  I suspect this is related to the population increase (227 million in 1980, about 310 million in 2012) and theater expansion.  The Empire Strikes Back reached less than 1,300 theaters—The Avengers opened in over 4,300 theaters.

In a similar line of analysis, I was very interested in this visualization of movies that earned $100 million.  The image below shows the actual (not adjusted) domestic gross for the top 100 from 1980-2012.  The movies that grossed $100 million or more are highlighted in green.
100 million box office
There are many more green cells in recent years, which makes sense given ticket inflation.  I expected that once the totals were adjusted for inflation, we would see about the same number of movies cross $100 million in 2013 dollars every year.  Nope.  The image below shows the adjusted gross for the top 100 from 1980-2012.  The movies with an adjusted gross of $100 million or more are highlighted in blue.
100 million adjusted box office
I don’t have a great hypothesis to explain this trend (challenge to all commenters), but I believe the visual speaks to the variation in the theatrical marketplace over time, which brings us to phase two.

Continue to page 2 for the all-time charts and a discussion of why it’s so difficult to compare modern releases to Gone with the Wind

Page 2


*I am trying to file all my features on domestic box office before domestic box office becomes irrelevant.  I may already be too late.

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  • Nick

    Aaaaaaaaaaaand who cares?

    • Clay

      People who can think may find it interesting. It’s a narrow market these days.

      • Nerdgasm


    • Kevin

      Anyone who cares about box office numbers, which is a lot of people.

  • MichaelRWorthingon

    Very interesting…but why do you just shrug off population growth? If you are trying to determine what are the most “popular” movies then you should factor that in as well and do it mathematically.

    • Brendan Bettinger

      Fair enough. You have to assume US/Canada population is correlated with movie ticket buyers (or decide that correlation is irrelevant), but it would be worthwhile to look at estimated tickets sold per capita if (when) I revisit this.

      Side note: Total admissions rose steadily from 1987 to 2002 (1.6 billion tickets), but have since dropped down to 1996 levels (about 1.3 billion tickets). Over that time frame, US/Canada bought about 4-5 movie tickets per person each year. Higher than I would have expected. Wish there were data on total ticket sales before 1987.

      • Tritium3H

        I would recommend two more weighted adjustment factors. The first, as has already been mentioned, would be a factor which takes into account total population. The second factor would be the total number of theatres that the film was released on (assuming that information is available.), during it’s initial release.

  • ChrisNolan

    also its extremely hard to judge movies after the start of home media/vhs. how much more likely are you to repetitively see a film that was only in theaters a few months and then (almost) gone forever? compared to nowadays where a dvd is out 2 months later

    • Sean Chandler


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  • Dev1359

    Pretty neat analysis, I’ve also always been annoyed about how the success of movies has always been measured by box office gross…especially today with the advent of 3D and IMAX. It feels like every year the next big blockbuster movie is breaking some box office record and its entirely due to ticket inflation rather than more and more people going to the movies.

    • Farrell

      It’s just another tool Hollywood uses to hide the fact that the movie business is in serious trouble. Attendance is way way down. But if you count box office gross, rather than tickets sold, you can make it seem like more people are going because of inflation and rising ticket prices.

  • Godot18

    I think there are two factors that explain the increase in movies passing $100 million over the years. First is the studios ability to supersaturate a release. Beginning in the late 1990′s, megaplexes began appearing. In the 80′s and 90′s you had multi screen venues, but these would top out at 8 theaters. Around the year 2000, multiplexes with 14-20 screen’s were becoming the norm. This allowed more screenings to be shown during the first months of release, before the release to VHS/DVD.

    In 1984, Ghostbusters was released in just 1,339 theaters. If you lived in a semi-small town, it may take a few months for you to get the film in your neighborhood. By that time, it may have already been released on VHS. This happened to me many a time. In 2001 Harry Potter opened to 3.672 theaters. My small 2 screen theater in town has been replaced by a megaplex with 12 screens. So I’m able to watch it right off the bat. No reason to wait the four months for a DVD release.

    The megaplexes have also given the ability for a larger number of films to be shown. Back in my 2 screen town, in 1984 I could watch either Ghostbusters or Star Trek III. Now I can watch a whole lot more. The more I’m able to watch, the more movies are able to break that $100 million barrier.

    Also note that in 2000 the internet really took off. If you wanted to know what the newest geek release was in the 80′s you would have to wait for your subscription to Starlog. Now Sites like Collider and Rotten Tomatoes allow anyone to become more knowledgeable about a wider range of movies. Back in the day you really had to work at being a film geek. Now it’s just a click of a button away.

  • Kevin Barrett

    Isn’t it possible to get actual ticket prices for a given year? So dividing a movie’s gross by that number gives you a more accurate number of tickets sold? Then multiply that by the $8.16 for all movies to get an adjusted gross? Also, I’ve always wanted to know the percentage of seats available a given movie sold. I doubt that’s possible at this point.

  • Jeff Rosz

    All very true, but no one should forget that box office statistics are more so about providing insight into the state of a culture and industry over select periods of time. The ‘all-time box office record’ is a mythological unicorn that will never be discovered on fair ground.

    • Brendan Bettinger

      Agreed. But it’s fun to look for unicorns.

  • JeffersonElmens


  • enzofloc

    Impossible to compare. Way too many variables. People (adults only, mostly white) who went to see Gone with the Wind never realized they’d be able to ever see it again. Watch it while it’s playing, before it vanishes.

  • Jay

    You’re the Ed Bean and John Hollinger for movies.

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