Blockbusters Preceded Box Office Records

Release patterns also changed. As high interest rates in the 1970s caused moviemakers to seek faster returns on their investments, long theater runs became less common and opening weekends more significant.

"Prior to that point, every single film was distributed by the so-called platform method," meaning film prints debuted first in large cities, then gradually got shipped to ever smaller ones, says Robert Sklar of New York University, author of Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies.

"There wasn't that big opening weekend," Sklar says. "Also, the data couldn't be collected so quickly. They were keeping records, but they couldn't be checked as instantaneously as they are now."

Box Office Savior

The changes also corresponded with the reversal of a decades-long decline in movie attendance.

According to MPAA figures, nearly 4.1 billion tickets were sold for movies in 1946, the first year for which figures are available.

"A hit movie then is like a colossus that bestrides the earth," Kaplan says. "There's no competition in the culture as far as the attention to it."

In 1947, however, movie admissions fell below 3.7 billion, and they continued to fall as television gained in popularity. In 1966, admissions fell below 1 billion for the first time, and stayed there until 1974. They hovered around 1 billion until they began to climb in the 1990s, reaching almost 1.5 billion in 2001.

With the rising ticket prices and a boom in multiplex expansion, theaters could stagger starting times for hit movies, and blockbuster grosses began to stack up. But it also became harder to have sustained success.

"Now, two or three or four studios every weekend, especially over the summer, are pushing out new product to replace the one that was king last week," Kaplan says.

Golden Age … of Home Video?

Some argue that even as the grosses become more publicized, they are becoming less relevant to movie industry insiders, except as a basis for bragging rights.

"Knowing the box office doesn't tell you how profitable the film is," Vogel says. "These movies are so expensive to make that lots of the ownership positions have been farmed out to other parties. … Lots of the upside [profit] is divided among many other people."

In addition, blockbusters have become less financially significant as their parent companies — including The Walt Disney Co., parent company of — have spread their financial risk out to other forms of media and entertainment.

"When ['Star Wars'] first came out in 1977, Twentieth Century Fox [stock] went up maybe 10 times," Vogel says. "You can't do that today."

But the companies still make money.

"One of the reasons the movies are booming … is they're making more money off of video and DVDs then they are off of actual [theatrical] releases," Sklar says. "If we're in a golden age today in terms of profitability for the industry, it's because of the ancillary markets, and the possibility of people buying and owning movies."

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