The Avengers, Inflation, And The Box Office Mystery That Haunts Me

When Titanic passed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing movie of all time, George Lucas took out an ad in Variety congratulating James Cameron. It's a cartoon of all the Star Wars characters sinking into the ocean, which is way funnier depending on your opinion of Episodes I-III. Plus they forgot Lando, the only black character in either movie.* But whatever.

The congratulatory ad is apparently a tradition — Steven Spielberg did the same when Star Wars surpassed Jaws in 1977, then Lucas returned the favor when E.T. topped Star Wars in 1982.**

When Avatar defeated Titanic, James Cameron built himself a submarine and descended to the bottom of the ocean. Which apparently was an option? Better than taking out an ad to congratulate himself, I guess.

All of which is to say, I saw The Avengers last weekend. As someone whose affection for Joss Whedon exists in a state of irrationality, I was predisposed to like it. More to the point, I wanted it to do well. That feels like a weird thing to want, like rooting for a team's revenue rather than the score, but there you go. The movie's pretty damn good, which I think is my objective take. But even so, I wasn't prepared for the news that it had broken the most frequently shattered box office record, piling up the best opening weekend ever.

New records for opening weekend are practically annual at this point. All of the top twelve opening weekends in history happened in the past six years. The Avengers unseated the final Harry Potter film, which came out less than a year ago — and with The Dark Knight Rises looming in July, The Avengers' reign may be shorter lived than its theatrical release. The whole thing is kind of goofy, and got me thinking yet again about a mystery that has bothered me for years.

Can anyone explain why Hollywood reports box office performance in dollars? Because I'm genuinely asking.

Think about major media outlets for a second:

  • Television: Household viewership, measured by Nielsen ratings
  • Music: Units sold, measured by Billboard
  • Books: Units sold, measured by The New York Times
  • Newspapers/Magazines: Circulation, measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulations
  • Video Games: Units sold, measured by The NPD Group
  • Sports: Attendance, reported by the teams

Yet not only are box office figures reported in dollars, they're like baseball stats that fans rattle off and compare historically.

Which makes no sense whatsoever.

Curious about inflation, I went digging through some boxes in search of a particular item. As it happens, I have kept the ticket stub of every movie I've seen since Star Trek VI in 1991. This is completely true, and certainly not an indication that I'm a weirdo. After a few minutes, I was able to find my ticket for The Avengers — I refer of course to the 1998 opus starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, based on the '60s British TV show.

My friend Johnny talked me into seeing it, and if he's reading this I would like to remind him that he still owes me those two hours back. I will take them from you on your death bed if need be, tiger. I'm a patient man.

Not counting the Fandango surcharge, I spent 54% more to see The Avengers on Friday than I did fourteen years ago. More than half. How am I supposed to take your box office numbers seriously with that kind of markup? And that's to say nothing of add-ons like IMAX and 3D, which skew the numbers further. MPAA figures show that 3D accounted for 21% of North American box office revenues in 2010 (driven largely by Avatar) and 18% in 2011.

Look, this isn't complicated. You don't have to stop reporting the truckloads of money. Truckloads of money are great! Better than toast and jam, and that's coming from someone who likes toast and jam quite a bit. Just report admissions too, so that we have a number that's actually useful. Is there a reason not to do that, or some sort of logistical impediment? I really am asking, if anybody out there happens to know about these things.

In the meantime, I suppose I shall make do with these juiced stats. They're not all bad, I guess. I have to admit, I am keen on the image of Joss Whedon standing on his roof this morning, blazing middle fingers in all directions and shouting "WHO'S CANCELING FIREFLY NOW, ASSHOLES?"

*Before you point out that Lando didn't appear in Star Wars, the cartoon includes Jabba the Hutt, Yoda, the Emperor, Boba Fett, Admiral Ackbar, IG-88, Salacious Crumb, some Ewoks, a drowning speeder bike trooper, and the blue puffy muppet who plays keyboard for Jabba's band. I'm not kidding.

**When Star Wars briefly reclaimed the title with the 1997 "Special Edition" re-release, Spielberg did the classy thing and kept the tradition going. My guess is that Spielberg is actually the one who started the tradition, since I doubt that William Friedkin publicly congratulated him when Jaws passed The Exorcist in 1975.