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The Greatest Films Ever Sold

Updated on July 13, 2015
Avatar (2009)
Avatar (2009) | Source

The discussion of the greatest films ever sold isn’t just a mere listing of the highest ten grossing films of all time, you also have to take into account the changes in time. It’s no secret that theater attendances’ have been dropping consistently the last twenty years or so. Attendance has been dropping because there are many more different ways to see movies these days. In the 1990’s home video became one of the most convenient ways to see movies and today you can download or stream these movies whenever you want. Today you can watch a film at your convince not at a scheduled time.

Yet with the changing ways we watch movies today, films open and gross at deceivingly high totals and this is because it cost more to go to the movies than what it did before. This is from a combination of inflation and the industry trying to curb the downfall. Unfortunately, that downfall is inevitable because soon (and it is already happening in a few cases) movies will come out on home video, on demand, and in theaters on the same day. For example, the 2015 film Entourage is also going to be available on HBO’s on demand site HBO GO. Eventually movie theaters will drift to a specialty market with Imax probably being one of the big winners. With all of this being said, you can’t necessarily depend on the totals as that is on the all-time grossing list. Here is a list of the top ten highest grossing films of all-time as it stands today.

  1. Avatar (2009, Fox) $760,507,625.00
  2. Titanic (1997, Paramount) $658,672,302.00
  3. Marvel's The Avengers (2012, Disney) $623,357,910.00
  4. The Dark Knight (2008, Warner Bros.) $534,858,444.00
  5. Star Wars: Episode 1 (1999, Fox) $474,544,249.00
  6. Star Wars (1977, Fox) $460,998,882.00
  7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Warner Bros.) $448,139,099.00
  8. Shrek 2 (2004, DreamWorks) $441,226,414.00
  9. E.T. (1982, Universal) $435,110,890.00
  10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013, Lionsgate) $424,668,047.00

As you can see six of the ten films were all made in this century, which corresponds with the uptick in ticket prices. Even with the uptick in prices the top ten does represent some great films that performed extremely well, especially Avatar but they don’t represent the great performance over the history of the American cinema. To truly grasp the success of a film the numbers must be adjusted to what they would make if they were released today and sold the same amount of tickets as they did the year they came out.

As will be the case with a lot of these films I’m going to cover, the markets they were released in were incredibly different from today. That is to say that these films would probably not make the amounts of money that the adjusted amounts suggest, theater attendance is down as mentioned before. It used to be that films would be released and would stay in theaters for months or even a year, rather than the standard three months of today. Also, many of the successful films would be released over and over again, because going to the movie theater was the only way to see these film. Either way, the differences resulting from inflation has greatly distorted how we see the success of the films in the past, so here are a few examples.

Titanic (1997)
Titanic (1997) | Source
Thunderball (1965)
Thunderball (1965) | Source

In 1965, the fourth edition of the 007 series Thunderball bowed at theaters and was the highest grossing Bond film up to that point. By today’s standards, the $63,595,501 of that film grossed in 1965 is unremarkable. If Thunderball came out today and sold the same amount of tickets, it would have made an amazing $504,714,000. So the fourth Bond film is actually the most successful movie in the entire series, even more than the recent edition, Skyfall that made $304,360,277 domestically.

From Here to Eternity is the 1953 classic featuring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. In 1953, the film made $27,000,106 and if it were a big Hollywood film today with the average cost of making a picture being nearly $80 million it would be a flop. If this film came out today it would have made a staggering $402,710,000.

As you can see from the above two examples the success of these films seams pale when you look at their actual grosses. Then, after looking at the adjusted grosses you really get a good look at their true success compared to today. You can even tell by looking at the full list at how things stack up from years past and that the heyday of Americans going out to the theater is long over. We only show up for the special films anymore, but it’s not like we’re not watching the movies, we’ve just changed how we watch films. Hell, I used to go to the movies once a week, now I wait till the new movies come out on demand and watch them in the comfort of my own home.

Here’s the list of the top ten films by adjusted gross. The following list was complied thanks to the lists available on Boxofffice.com and I will include a link to the complete list of 309 films at the bottom of this article. The first amount listed is the adjusted gross and the second number is the amount the film actually made domestically.

  1. Gone with the Wind (1939, MGM) $1,910,471,000(adj.) - $200,276,459
  2. Star Wars (1977, Fox) $1,392,893,000(adj.) - $460,998,882
  3. The Sound of Music (1965, Fox) $1,259,919,000(adj.) - $163,214,076
  4. E.T. (1982, Universal) $1,141,364,000(adj.) - $435,110,890
  5. Titanic (1997, Paramount) $1,128,788,000(adj.) - $658,672,302
  6. The Ten Commandments (1956, Paramount) $1,067,764,000(adj.) - $85,400,591
  7. Jaws (1975, Universal) $1,030,273,000(adj.) - $260,000,591
  8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Disney/RKO) $970,712,000(adj.) - $184,925,342
  9. Doctor Zhivago (1965, MGM) $831,241,000(adj.) - $111,721,461
  10. Avatar (2009, Fox) $824,720,000(adj.) - $760,507,625

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone with the Wind (1939) | Source

It’s amazing just how much 1939's Gone with the Wind would have made if it came out today. Obviously there is one other thing missing from this, which is where the current market prevails, the international release. Ten years ago, 50 percent of a films worldwide gross was from international receipts, today that percentage is over 60 percent. Long ago, American films would not really make it or not get a very large release internationally. Just imagine what Gone with the Wind would have made internationally in today’s market.

As you can see on the list, there is only one picture from this century in the top ten and followed by Titanic from the 90’s. There is also one film from the 80’s, but then two films to represent each of the decades of the 70’s, 60’s, and 30’s. The 50’s only have one film to represent it. The 40’s were unfortunately disrupted from World War 2. This list also shows the downfall of one of the old powerhouse studios, MGM. MGM doesn’t have any films in the unadjusted list of top ten films, but you can see just how great they used to have it with two in adjusted list of films.

Logo as seen in MGM film Easter Parade 1948
Logo as seen in MGM film Easter Parade 1948 | Source

Also present on the adjusted list that’s apart of a by gone era is the 1937 Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Obviously, Disney is a current powerhouse in Hollywood and this year 2015, will have them on top with two of the highest grossing films of the year with Avengers: Age of Ultron and the new Star Wars. Before Disney was this powerhouse, they were already a stand-alone studio but did required another studio to distribute their films. At this point in history the studio’s owned or had extensive agreements for distribution, which gave them a monopoly on theatrical distribution and that made sure that the studio’s had total control over their releases. So at the time, Disney had to ally with RKO for distribution. This monopoly ended after a 1948 ruling by the Supreme Court.

Two directors have the distinction of having two films each on the adjusted list, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. Cameron’s two films are of course the two highest grossing films of all-time 1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar. Spielberg’s two films are 1982’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial and the first ever blockbuster 1975’s Jaws.

Robert Shaw & Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws (1975)
Robert Shaw & Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws (1975) | Source
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Doctor Zhivago (1965) | Source

The adjusted list also features three films that are well over three hours long. Gone with the Wind and 1956’s The Ten Commandments both approach four hours long. 1965’s Doctor Zhivago is three hours and seventeen minutes long and Titanic is about the same length. Obviously, people used to be more willing to sit through a long movie. It was probably easier back then since there weren’t fifteen minutes of previews prior to the film and a ten-minute break in the middle of the film. Though there are a lot of films on the unadjusted list that are two and a half hours and approaching three hours but those slightly shorter lengths are easier to sit through for our short attention spans. Titanic is the only film on the unadjusted list that is over three hours.

These day’s studios will not stand for movies that are nearly four hours long and the only big studio film that have been allowed to be well over four hours long was 2003’s Gods and Generals. The 2002 Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York original cut was initially four hours long, till the release was delayed by year partially because of the September 11th attacks but mainly because of pick-ups (additional filming to add or change scenes) that were still being shot two months before the slated 2001 release. As a result of delays the post-production team ended up having more time to cut and trim the film.

The Sound of Music (1965)
The Sound of Music (1965) | Source

Unlike the unadjusted list, the adjusted list features a musical high up on the list with 1965’s Julie Andrews classic The Sound of Music. The highest grossing musical of all-time is 1978’s Grease, which sits at the 173rd spot. Musicals used to be far more popular and abundant than they are now.

Obviously, times are different now with the exception of people still enjoying a good spectacle. As I mentioned before if these movies did actually come out today they would not make as much money that their adjusted grosses suggest. The films themselves would also be incredibly different and in a lot of ways.

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