James Cameron’s Avatar is now certain to become the highest grossing movie of all time, both at the domestic US Box Office and internationally, well, sort of. Factor in inflation and things look a little different. Ed crunches the numbers and finds out if today’s blockbusters are really more popular than their counterparts from yesteryear.

Box office analysts, those curious loons who spend each weekend with a calculator in one hand and their pleasure appendage in the other, thought that James Cameron has compressed all their Christmases into one and rendered it in 3D when Avatar inverted the trajectory of the average blockbuster. As any fule no, the release strategy for the Hollywood tentpole is now well established and has generated a model of return which is just as reliable. In days of yore, before home cinema and online theft, a movie, like a fine wine, was given time to breathe. Released in a few hundred cinemas in major cities, it would gradually tour, building word of mouth as it went. It might spread to the countryside, assuming anyone in the metropolis had bothered to see it and after a period of several months, sometimes years, it would quietly fade away, perhaps to be revived in rep a few years later, perhaps to find new life on television. Cinemagoers were often older and perhaps a little more adventurous, propelling movies like The Godfather and Doctor Zhivago to stratospheric box office.

Jaws changed all that. Hollywood learnt that a movie that appealed to a younger audience, a hyperactive, thrill seeking, devil may care audience, could generate enormous revenues, and fast. Jaws’ presence in America’s multiplexes soon expanded and its gross reflected the fact that audiences were returning to see it several times. Without intent, much like the serendipitous invention of Viagra or Penicillin, Spielberg’s film invented a new way of doing business. Now Blockbusters can expect to make most of their money on opening weekend. This is due to a blitzkrieg model in which a new release is relentlessly marketed in the months prior to its reveal then booked into as many screens as humanly possible, usually in excess of 3,000. In this opening “frame”, the movie can expect to make the lion’s share of its final take. Those analysts, who live for little else, keep their beady eyes on the so called sophomore frame, that second weekend in which good or bad word of mouth, coupled with the bulk of the target audience having blown their load, usually leads to a substantial decline. A movie can lose half its audience in the second week so any decline of less than 40% is deemed to indicate that the film has “legs”. Most don’t. Based upon this pattern of decline it then becomes fairly easy for the number crunchers to predict how much the movie will end with. If it flops, no matter – the cinema is only the first market anyway. Those ancillaries, DVD, Blu-ray and soon, legitimate download, may recoup costs, sometimes even turning a profit. But we digress.

What’s extraordinary about Avatar, and it certainly isn’t the plot or the characterisation, is the speed and consistency with which it’s made money. The opening weekend, $77M in the US, was solid but not extraordinary. However, Cameron’s film, just as Titanic had done 11 years earlier, broke the cycle of box office decline and has held on to its audience who seemingly can’t get enough of its gimmicked environs. In that sophomore frame it lost just 11% of its audience, virtually – no pun intended, unheard of and 5 weeks later it remains no.1 at the usually fickle US box office. It is the fastest movie in history to make $500m at US tills, the fastest to $1b worldwide in just 32 days. Screenings remained fully booked and sometime in February it will beat Titanic to take the number one all time spot in the US box office chart. By that time it will easily have assumed the same position worldwide. A gross in excess of $2b is attainable and highly likely. Now that all sounds marvellous and would seem to make Avatar unassailable, suggesting that cinema attendance is in rude health but it is of course, a lie because box office charts only reflect the actual figure amassed. They do not alter this figure to account for ticket price inflation. We, however, will do just that.

The truth is that Avatar is an enormous hit but no more so than several movies from the distant past. When one does account for inflation, as any honest comparison of box office tallies must, then Avatar is currently 32 on the list of US domestic blockbusters, sandwiched between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ghostbusters, both of which made the equivalent of $519m in 2010 money. Assuming it finishes around the $600-650m range, as it likely, it would be no more popular than The Phantom Menace, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark or, wait for it, The Graduate. If Cameron wants to beat himself and there are many who wish he’d try, Avatar will need to bank $943,342,301 at US multiplexes to make more than Titanic did in 1998. You see, it’s not quite the clean sweep you thought it was.

HUG readers may be more interested to know how Avatar stacks up against their childhood favourites and this is actually a useful comparison because many movies, pre-1980, would only achieve their totals from multiple releases. Even Star Wars, which has a Rancor sized gross of $1.3billion in adjusted dollars – that’s US alone, has amassed that total from $320m from 1977 added to a further $138m from 1997. You then have to look at average ticket prices, attendance, a comparison of average prices if attendance figures aren’t avai- look, it’s complicated alright?

A more pertinent question for the box office analyst, rather than why is Avatar doing so well, might be ‘why don’t more modern movies do as well as Avatar?’ Recent blockbusters, even those which are critically acclaimed such as Lord of the Rings, can only boast no.51 in the chart overall. Johhny Depp’s impression of Keith Richards might have propelled Pirates of the Caribbean to worldwide success but he couldn’t do better than Henry Koster’s 1953 biblical hit, The Robe. Have you seen it? No, didn’t think so. In fact if Avatar does finish where we imagine it will, it will be the only film released in the Noughties to finish in the top 25.

So how do your favourites compare to Cameron’s behemoth? It will end up in Return of the Jedi country ($691m adjusted) but far short of Jaws ($941m adjusted), E.T ($1.04b adjusted) and the all time champ, Gone with the Wind (an incredible $1.48b adjusted). The other bad news for Hollywood on the box office front is that they’re having to swim twice as hard to cover the same distance from a generation ago. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek easily surpassed its predecessor’s numbers with $257.7m last summer, but that looks less rosy when you look at inflation. The previous leader in the Trek canon, 1986’s The Voyage Home, made $100m at a time when tickets cost about half as much. On a $30m budget (about $60m today), it made 80% of Abram’s take. The 2009 film by contrast cost $62m in 1986 money, over twice as much and would have grossed $132m at 1986 prices. A victor then, but not by the margin we all imagined.

If you’re a Hollywood exec trying to work out why you need to spend twice as much and a third again on marketing just to match the kind of grosses movies were making 25 years ago, you could blame the proliferation of home entertainment and the internet, or, if you were being smart, you might think that today’s blockbusters don’t have the same legs because they offer audiences less in terms of plot, character, dialogue and ideas – those essential storytelling elements which endear a film to patrons, drive word of mouth and promote repeat business. The 80s movies that still rank in the top 30 did so with lower budgets, fewer screens and no 3D glasses. Makes you think.

Still, it would be churlish, I mean more so than I’ve been already, to underwrite Cameron’s achievement. The advance in technology represented by Avatar has mouth watering potential which is just waiting to be wasted by poor screenwriters. In any event, he’ll end up with two movies in the all time top ten, an achievement only matched by Steven Spielberg and with that boat movie, he still managed to rake in two thirds of Gone with the Wind’s gross in an era when less than half as many people went to the cinema. Imagine what Cameron could do with a great script as well the promise of never before seen spectacle. It might even beat inflation…for a while.