Disney’s “Frozen” shattered another record this weekend, blowing past “Toy Story 3″ to become the top-grossing animated film of all time. Of all time!
But this triumph, like so many other eyebrow-raising records, may be a little less triumphant than it initially appears. Don’t get me wrong: “Frozen” is a fun, smart, wildly imaginative movie, and it deserves all the accolades going its way. But the record-breaking is less about Elsa, et al. and more about basic economics. In fact, current trends suggest another top-grossing film will eclipse “Frozen” before long.
There are two big forces at work here. The first has to do with the rapid growth of movie theaters in foreign markets, where “Frozen” did really, really well. (More than 63 percent of its earnings came from abroad.) In fact, if you only account for domestic totals, a much different ranking emerges: “The Lion King” did best among domestic audiences, followed by “Shrek 2,” “Finding Nemo” and “Aladdin.” “Frozen” barely makes the top 10.
But there are far more movie screens in countries like China and India than there were when “The Lion King” was released in 1994. In 2013 alone, the Motion Picture Association of America reported that the number of theaters worldwide grew by 4 percent, on top of 5 percent growth the year before. Much of that growth went down in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where audiences flocked to see “Frozen” in big numbers: the film generated $48.2 million of sales in China, for instance, and $76.7 million in South Korea.
There’s another accounting trick going on here, as well, and that has to do with the cost of movie tickets over time. Disney’s figures are indeed adjusted for inflation; according to Box Office Mojo, “Snow White” or “The Lion King” can’t top “Frozen,” even in 2014 dollars. But the price of movie tickets has far outpaced inflation. Consider: It’s not inconceivable to clear $1 billion in 2014, when movie tickets regularly cost $9 or more. But in 1936 — the year before “Snow White” was released — a movie ticket cost 25 cents, or about $4.22 in 2014 dollars. You’d have to move a lot more tickets to hit the billion-dollar mark.
TL;DR: “Frozen” did indeed make a whoppingly great amount of money. But it’s also easier to make that much money than it’s ever been before! Expect a sequel in short order.