Blockbusters Preceded Box Office Records

Last November, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" earned $90 million on its opening weekend, destroying the old record of $72 million.

Then, "Spider-Man" zapped "Harry" with nearly a $115 million take two weekends ago. And an early estimate had "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" racking up $86.15 million from Friday to Sunday on 450 fewer screens than "Spider-Man," enough to rank third of all time.

With records being set so fast, this must be the golden age of Hollywood blockbusters, right?

Or maybe it's just the golden age of box office grosses — which always go up, unlike the actual number of moviegoers.

Though annual movie attendance has been rising after two flat decades, far more customers went to the movies in the 1940s, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

In fact, of the 20 biggest box-office draws of all time, only four have debuted since 1983's "Return of the Jedi," and seven came out prior to 1962, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., an Encino, Calif., box-office tracking firm that produced an unscientific, inflation-adjusted list.

"It puts things into perspective," says Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations' president. "Essentially, it levels the playing field and shows you no matter how popular a movie may be today, [it] has to raise an awful lot of money to match the tickets sold by some of these older blockbusters."

All-Time U.S. Box Office -- Constant Dollars (Estimated)
  Admissions 2002 Dollars Actual Dollars
1. Gone With the Wind (1939)   202,044,569   $1,181,960,729   $198,655,278
2. Star Wars (1977)   178,119,595   $1,041,999,631   $460,998,007
3. The Sound of Music (1965)   142,415,376   $833,129,950   $158,671,368
4. E.T. (1982)   141,925,359   $830,263,350   $434,538,449
5. The Ten Commandments (1956)   131,000,000   $766,350,000   $65,500,000
6. Titanic (1997)   129,201,761   $755,830,301   $600,788,188
7. Jaws (1975)   128,078,818   $749,261,084   $260,000,000
8. Snow White (1937)   109,000,000   $637,650,000   $184,925,486
9. 101 Dalmations (1961)   99,917,251   $584,515,919   $144,880,014
10. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)   98,106,044   $573,920,357   $290,266,497
11. Ben-Hur (1959)   98,000,000   $573,300,000   $74,000,000
12. The Exorcist (1973)   94,285,714   $551,571,429   $165,000,000
13. Return of the Jedi (1983)   94,026,245   $550,053,533   $309,153,948
14. The Sting (1973)   89,142,857   $521,485,714   $156,000,000
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)   88,141,855   $515,629,854   $245,034,358
16. Jurassic Park (1993)   86,248,296   $504,552,534   $357,067,947
17. Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace (1999)   84,859,901   $496,430,418   $431,088,295
18. Fantasia (1940)   83,043,478   $485,804,348   $76,400,000
19. The Godfather (1972)   79,392,006   $464,443,238   $134,966,411
20. Forrest Gump (1994)   78,874,282   $461,414,550   $329,694,499

‘Box Office’ Boom

Nevertheless, box office grosses, once of interest only to movie moguls, now appear to be of interest to moviegoers.

"It's part of a general trend in our culture, which is sometimes lumped under … 'post modernism,' where we are fascinated with what happens behind the curtain," says Marty Kaplan, director of the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, which studies the impact of entertainment on society.

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