Despite the many thinkpieces in recent years mourning the death of movies, the U.S. film industry has just proclaimed that it had its second-best summer box office ever. Talk about a Hollywood-style comeback!
Well, not exactly. Hollywood likes to proclaim it’s breaking records (or very nearly breaking records) all the time even when it’s done nothing of the sort. The problem is that the film industry doesn’t understand inflation.
The latest estimates for the domestic box office take from the summer season, which officially lasts from May 1 through Labor Day, put the tally at around $4.47 billion or $4.48 billion (depending on the source). That sounds like a lot, I know. Except that ticket prices have gone up a little bit each year, just as the prices of other consumer goods and services do.
Box Office Mojo, a useful resource for historical ticket sales data, has a tool that adjusts such tallies based on the average price of movie tickets in a given year (as opposed to the overall consumer price index). The site’s seasonal calendar gross data only go back to 1982; within that time frame, this summer’s box office gross doesn’t even make the top 10. That’s despite the fact that this summer “season,” as Hollywood defines it, was an unusually long 129 days because of how late Labor Day was.
|Year||Adj. Gross (Calendar Gross)||Days in||Movies|
Yet a lot of publications that should know better — including some that explicitly focus on the entertainment industry — just parroted the nominal numbers that suggested things were much better than they are. True, domestic box office sales are a less important component of total revenues than they once were, but I haven’t seen any bombast about record-breaking alternate revenue streams just yet.
Beware, by the way, of similar non-inflation-adjusted claims being made about the summer’s biggest ticket-seller, “Jurassic World.” According to Box Office Mojo’s database of domestic grosses for individual films (which goes back to the early 20th century), “Jurassic World” ranks #28, which is 12 spots behind the original “Jurassic Park” film; the top honor still belongs to “Gone With the Wind,” released in 1939.
None of these numbers takes into account the price tags involved for making these films, as L.A. Weekly’s Zachary Pincus-Roth notes. “Gone With the Wind” would do even better in such historical comparisons if you considered its R.O.I.