Why journalists don't account for inflation when they report box office records.

The joy of blockbusters.
July 6 2009 7:03 AM

Best Weekend Never

Why journalists don't account for inflation when they report box office records.

Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.

Gone With the Wind.
Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind

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.

Advertisement

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?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 8:07 AM The Dark Side of Techtopia
  Life
Quora
Oct. 2 2014 8:27 AM How Do Teachers Kill the Joy of Reading for Students?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 8:47 AM Season 2 of The Bridge Was Confusing, Bizarre, and Uneven. I Loved It.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 2 2014 7:30 AM What Put the Man in the Moon in the Moon?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?