Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
When The Dark Knight earned $158 million in its opening weekend last summer, journalists went gaga over the possibility that it would unseat Titanic as the all-time domestic box office leader. But the race was utter bunk. Accounting for inflation, the true record holder is Gone With the Wind, which—in 2009 dollars—earned over 50 percent more than Titanic and almost three times as much as The Dark Knight. Rhett Butler doesn't give a damn about Jack Dawson, let alone Bruce Wayne.
Every summer, journalists engage in this brand of misleading speculation. Even when there isn't an all-time contender like The Dark Knight, other records trip us up. For instance, in 2007, journalists proclaimed The Bourne Ultimatum the top August opening ever, but when you account for inflation, it's surpassed by 2001's Rush Hour 2 and 2002's Signs. While this summer's Star Trek ($247 million-plus) seems light-years beyond its predecessors, it actually only inched by 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which made $235 million in 2009 dollars.
The problems with our growing fixation on box office figures—they don't account for costs of the film, they don't include home-entertainment revenue, etc.—have been chronicled in the past. But as long as we continue to indulge this obsession, shouldn't journalists at least factor in inflation, instead of pretending that it doesn't exist?
Journalists like to ignore this basic economic principle because, for one thing, "Johnny Depp's best weekend ever" is a more exciting headline than "Johnny Depp's 14th-best weekend ever in inflation-adjusted dollars when starring in a Tim Burton-directed children's novel adaptation." And perhaps journalists don't care because the public doesn't, either. As readers, we get excited about records being broken. As moviegoers, we feel reassured knowing that everyone in America saw the same blockbuster as we did last weekend. But there's good reason to care about accuracy.
Cinephiles, at the very least, should care, since precise figures can help boost the status of classic films. Lay readers, who now follow the box office as if it's a sport, should recognize that ignoring inflation is like comparing the world record for the 100-meter dash to the record for, say, a 3-meter dash. That's a more apt comparison than you might think: The average ticket price in 1939 (23 cents) is 3 percent of the price in 2009 ($7.18). Granted, those who follow box office races as indicators of the quarter-to-quarter financial health of media companies have no reason to heed inflation. But for others in the industry—such as competitors (and shareholders) of companies whose executives use box office figures to brag—accurate figures could provide useful perspective.
Besides, what we really want to know is not how many $1 bills will be dumped onto the Warner Bros. lot when The Hangover finishes its run. We want to know the impact a particular film has had on the country and on our culture. The real question is: How many people have actually seen The Dark Knight or Transformers 2 or whatever the movie of the moment might be?