Box-Office and the Unsinkable Titanic

RMS Titanic was called unsinkable, but the somewhat clever title isn’t meant to mock the ship or its subsequent tragic fate on the night of April 14th, 1912. In the context of this blog it instead refers to the incredible consistency with which James Cameron’s 1997 epic film Titanic kept the theaters packed for months and months after its release, resulting in what is arguably the most incredible box-office run in history.

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As you might know, a box office is a place where tickets are sold, but the film industry has adopted the term Box-office (or B.O.) to refer to the amount of money raised by ticket sales, not how many tickets are actually sold.

This poses a difficult problem when trying to compare box-office success of movies that were theatrically released years or decades apart. Notably because of ticket price inflation which gives advantage to newer films that can sell considerably less tickets than their predecessors, but still earn more money and bragging rights. Looking at the list of all time highest-grossing films confirms this as we can see an unusual amount of recent titles occupying the highest positions.

Box Office Mojo, the leading tracker of box-office revenue does provide moderately reliable data that is adjusted for inflation, but the list only adjusts the figures from North America (called the Domestic market in B.O. terms) because adjusting worldwide figures is practically impossible. Different countries means different interests rates, different currencies and so on. As it stands, there is no 100% reliable info for the worldwide stage that would be adjusted for inflation, so we can only estimate and speculate.

But one thing that all estimates agree on is the occupants of the first four spots. They are Gone with the Wind (GWTW), Titanic, Avatar and Star Wars (usually in that order). People that are in the know will also tell you that GWTW undoubtedly sold the highest amount of tickets domestically (around 200 million), and that no other film will probably ever come close. But on the worldwide stage, the four mentioned movies have very similar estimates of their adjusted gross, ranging from around $2.8 billion for Star Wars and up to around $3.3 billion for GWTW.

So, why do I hold Titanic in such high regard? Because it needed just one release (or one theatrical run) to do what GWTW did in multiple releases spanning more than half a century. Additionally, we must acknowledge that comparing any modern blockbuster with a movie as old as GWTW (first released in 1939) is like comparing sprinters and long distance runners. Expecting a modern-day blockbuster to sell as many tickets as GWTW is kind of like expecting a 100 meter sprinter to run 10 kilometers in 10 seconds. It’s an extreme analogy, but a very appropriate one. These days movies are in theaters only for a couple of months before their lives continue on home media formats such as DVD, Blu-ray and on streaming services like Netflix. GWTW, on the other hand, is very much a marathon runner in that regard. Its initial US theatrical run lasted about four years and, on top of that, was then re-released at least seven more times in the next 60 years. This makes all the comparisons a bit meaningless, but they’re still fun to do, if only we accept that movie-going habits have changed drastically since the early days of cinema. In the context of our analogy this means that all movies today are sprinters, i.e., they have very little time to turn in the money, and they run out of steam very quickly.

But wait a second. If a movie is still making money, then it’s surely not going to be pulled out of theaters, right? Of course, but movies today are extremely front-loaded, which means that most of them earn about 45% of their total gross in their first weekend and about 90% in the first four weeks of release. A more successful movie with a longer run might have an opening weekend’s share in the vicinity of 30%. Titanic and Avatar are the exceptions to this rule as their opening weekend’s share was only 4.8% and 10.6%, respectively. Granted, they didn’t have a massive opening like most of the other big blockbusters, but they did maintain high attendance numbers for a number of consecutive weeks and even months.

I’ve compiled data on estimated tickets sold and made some visualizations that better illustrate the differences between a typical blockbuster and a phenomenon like Titanic or Avatar.

To clarify, the way you normally estimate the number of tickets sold is by taking the final domestic gross, and then dividing it by the average ticket price from the year the movie in question was released. There’s usually a bit more nuance to it than that, but you get the gist of it.
Domestic Daily 100 Days 1Jurassic World, released in the summer of 2015 is one of the biggest, most front-loaded blockbusters in history (only behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and it followed a typical blockbuster scenario. We can see that it had a huge opening with an estimate of 9,933,800 tickets sold in its first day! But look what happens after about three weeks (or 20 days). Attendance starts to dwindle out and day 24 was the last time it sold over 1 million tickets. Avatar and Titanic, on the other hand, had relatively modest openings, but they still managed to sell over a million tickets per day even after two months. And Titanic recorded its biggest single day on day 58 of its initial release! It’s an unprecedented achievement, though it’s probably unsurprising because it was Valentine’s Day.

The jumps in the graphs above and below represent weekend days when the theater attendance is obviously at its highest.

The graph below takes that same data, but it shows accumulated tickets sold in the same period (first 100 days). Domestic Cumulative 100 Days 1Titanic has a line that’s almost linear from day one to day 100. And again we can see the huge opening of Jurassic World. It sold 70 million tickets in 29 days, but its graph rapidly starts to flatten out after that. By day 59 Titanic is already in front and steaming on without as much of a hint of slowing down. It sold 48.3 million tickets in one month and 31.9 million tickets in the second. A drop of only 34% while Jurassic World dropped 91% (70.9 to 6.1 million).

Titanic stretched its legs to over 128 million tickets sold in a theatrical run that lasted almost 10 months. Adjusted for inflation, this translates to around $1.1 billion. By most accounts, it remains the single biggest initial Domestic release in history. It’s also very likely the biggest single worldwide release of all time (rivaled only by Avatar).

Unadjusted for inflation, it went on to earn $1,843,201,268 worldwide, more than doubling the previous record mark of $914,691,118 set by Jurassic Park in 1993. Titanic was re-released in 2012 when it earned an additional $343,550,770 for an updated grand total of $2,186,772,302.

Avatar (2009), fittingly also a James Cameron movie, grossed $2,749,064,328 in its initial worldwide run. It remains the only movie since Titanic that can lay claim to being the movie that rocked the theaters on a similar scale all across the globe.

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Both of them set box-office records in most countries they were released in. Titanic brought in a massive domestic figure of $600 million, but this still represented only a third of its global share. The other two thirds from around the world (called Foreign or Overseas markets in B.O. terms) accumulated to over $1.24 billion, a number no other movie apart from Avatar ever managed to surpass even to this day.

Furious 7 (2015) did come close with $1.16 billion, but it was helped by a massive boom of the global market, especially in emerging territories like China where it seemed to have struck a chord with their audience as it grossed $390 million compared to Titanic’s $44 million.

Anyway, Avatar tracked very similarly with only 27% ($750 million) of its worldwide share coming from North America. The other 73% accumulated to a massive figure of $2 billion. It sold approximately 95.2 million tickets domestically and this would still be the highest amount since Titanic, if only the Force would have stayed in bed.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in the process of destroying every single box-office record imaginable. Its first few weeks were absolutely stellar, especially on the domestic front where it made $119 million in its first day! That’s approximately 13,835,000 tickets! Even adjusted for inflation, that is by far the biggest single day in history. It made a record $529 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

But it is already slowing down significantly after one month – a typical blockbuster trend. Nevertheless, it has already surpassed Avatar’s initial ticket sales in only 26 days. All of this means that The Force Awakens falls somewhere in line between being a “normal” blockbuster and a worldwide phenomenon. It’s more of the latter, but it would probably be appropriate to label it as a blockbuster on steroids. Or maybe Usain Bolt of the movie industry. Just look at the crazy amount of tickets it managed to sell in only one month (roughly 98.8 million).Domestic Cumulative 200 Days 2The Force Awakens is undoubtedly one of the biggest domestic hits in history and the biggest since Titanic. The only remaining question is how good its legs will be. While it’s already slowing down significantly, it’s still well on track to reach at least $900 million.

It’s a bit of a different story elsewhere. Star Wars never seemed to captivate the foreign audience on quite the same level as it did domestically. The Phantom Menace (1999) had the highest Foreign box-office share of all the Star Wars movies at 56.2%. Frankly, it’s a very modest percentage for such a globally recognizable franchise. And while the North American market is by far the biggest in the world, it still only accounts for about 29% of the entire worldwide box-office revenue. Global box-office in 2015 was $38 billion, of which $11 billion came from North America. This means that a universal box-office hit should bring in about two thirds of its total revenue from Foreign markets. Sounds familiar?

While we’re on the subject of Foreign markets, let’s go back to China for a moment. It’s the fastest growing box-office market in the world, and is even set to overtake the US one in the next two years, given that it sustains its current rate of growth of course. Disney was well aware of this and they supposedly heavily marketed the movie there, but it doesn’t seem like the efforts will pay off quite as much as they might have hoped for at the beginning. The Force Awakens was expected to gross around $250 million in China, but right now it seems like $120 million is a much more realistic target.

Despite Disney’s efforts, The Force Awakens didn’t manage to break out of the ‘Star Wars mold’ that is the Domestic/Foreign ratio of around fifty-fifty. As of today, one month after its premiere, the movie is sitting at $1.87 billion worldwide. Its mammoth domestic revenue currently accounts for 46% of that.

I will probably write another short piece on The Force Awakens and its box-office achievements once it finishes its theatrical run, but right now I’m estimating that its total gross will be around $2.2 billion. Some people expected it to challenge Avatar’s unadjusted worldwide record of $2.788 billion, but it’s probably going to have to settle for 2nd place. And so the tradition is maintained – no sequel has ever held the worldwide crown.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created the ‘modern blockbuster’ in the late 1970s with films like Jaws and Star Wars. James Cameron remains the only rightful heir that can still, after 18 years and counting, proclaim himself as the King of the World.

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