Blockbusters Preceded Box Office Records

ByMichael S. James

May 20, 2002 — -- 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."

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.

"It's the same thing in politics," he says. "We care more about the campaign advisers fighting with each other or their ad buys, rather than the candidates' farm policies."

For fans of box-office grosses, dazzling records keep coming — especially with New York City movie ticket prices crossing the $10 threshold, and federal statistics showing the cost of non-sports entertainment easily outpacing inflation. Nationally, the average movie ticket price in 2001 was $5.66, according to the MPAA.

This summer, with two blockbusters already in theaters and a highly anticipated slate of coming attractions that includes "Minority Report," "XXX," "Insomnia," "Scooby Doo," and new films in the Austin Powers, Men in Black and Stuart Little series, many are predicting a record-breaking summer at the box office.

Dergarabedian, for one, believes this season's revenues will exceed last summer's $3.06 billion record for the 15-week period from Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends — with successive hits feeding a positive buzz.

"The numbers when they come out, if they're huge, people talk about them," Dergarabedian says. "A big film just automatically has this glow that's attached to it and people automatically key off of that."

The weekend performance of "Attack of the Clones" is another sign of a big summer, he says. The fact that "Clones'" Saturday gross receipts topped Thursday's opening-day figure — in contrast to 1999's "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" — indicates strong viewer word-of-mouth and a major hit.

"Even in this competitive marketplace, with 'Spider-Man' so clearly dominating the box office for the past few weeks, this shows that ['Star Wars' creator George] Lucas and the 'Star Wars' franchise are still very much alive and very relevant," Dergarabedian says.

Clones has a high standard to meet. "Gone With The Wind" sold the most tickets upon its 1939 release and numerous theatrical re-releases, but the original 1977 "Star Wars" is second. In fact, all four prior "Star Wars" films are listed among the top 20 for both all-time ticket sales and non-adjusted domestic grosses — a more commonly publicized list.

Boosted by inflation, that more ubiquitous list tilts toward newer releases, perhaps helping fuel the modern attention paid to box office grosses.

Some believe box office grosses entered the cultural mainstream after the debuts of Entertainment Tonight and similar shows, which reported them in the 1980s. Gradually, better technology allowed tracking companies to gather box office numbers more instantaneously, and the mainstream press picked them up.

"That started to happen, I would say, about eight to 10 years ago … because the numbers were available and the media likes to present things in terms of a horse race," says Harold Vogel, author of Entertainment Industry Economics, and head of Vogel Capital Management, a New York venture capital firm.

Others see roots of the box-office gross fascination in the mid-1970s, as films like 1975's "Jaws" and 1977's "Star Wars" ushered in the age of the modern-style, mega-marketed, multimedia blockbuster.

"Movies used to be their own business," Kaplan says. "Now they're part of a synergistic conglomerate where things that are in movies are also in books and toys and music and popular video games."

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."

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.

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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