Avatar has just beaten Titanic’s worldwide box office record in inflation-adjusted US-dollar terms. As per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, Titanic would have grossed $2.450 billion in 2010 US dollars, or about $16 million less than Avatar, a blockbuster that continues to break box office records overseas on its 10th week.
Now, even if we choose to ignore the fact that the playing field isn’t the same — when Titanic came out, neither China nor Russia, two of Avatar’s biggest boosters, were the huge Hollywood markets they’ve become since; back in 1998, movies didn’t come out on DVD three or four months following their initial release — there’s also the issue of 3D/IMAX surcharges, which can add about about 28.5%-40 percent to a movie’s admission costs.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, approximately 80 percent of Avatar’s revenues in North America and two-thirds of its international receipts came from 3D/IMAX screenings. Subtract one-third — or even one-quarter or one-fifth — of Avatar’s worldwide box office take to date, and you’ll find that it still trails Titanic — in terms of number of tickets sold — by a wide margin.
Just as important is the fact that back in 1998 the US dollar was very strong, whereas in 2010 it’s quite weak. In other words, most top foreign currencies, when converted, could buy way fewer dollars in 1998 than today; e.g., 1,000 Japanese Yen bought $US7.5 in Jan. 1998, but US$10.7 in Jan. 2010; 1,000 Chinese Yuan bought US$120 in Jan. 1998, but US$146 in Jan. 2010; 1 euro bought US$1.09 in Jan. 1998, but US$1.43 in Jan. 2010. (Note: in 1998, EU countries still had their own currencies, but the euro reflected their monetary value.)
So, if 1 million tickets at 1,000 Yen each were sold for Titanic in Japan in 1998 and the same amount was sold for Avatar for the same price in 2010 (we’re ignoring inflation and 3D/IMAX surcharges here), when converted to US dollars, box office figures would read approximately $7.5 million for Titanic and $10.7 million for Avatar. That’s quite a discrepancy when we’re discussing nine-figure amounts: Titanic grossed $201 million in Japan in 1998; in 2010 US dollars, that would represent a staggering $286 million. Avatar, with higher ticket prices and 3D/IMAX surcharges, has grossed $131 million at the Japanese box office as of Feb. 21.
Even the domestic box office — which includes both the US and Canada — has been (paradoxically) strengthened by the weak US dollar: The Canadian dollar was worth 70 cents in Jan. 1998; in Jan. 2010, it was worth 96 cents, a valuation of about 35 percent. That means adding approximately US$3.5 million to every $10 million Canadian dollars earned by Avatar at the domestic box office when compared to the same amount (in Canadian dollars) earned when Titanic was the James Cameron blockbuster breaking global box office records as moviegoers the world over wanted to see Leonardo DiCaprio sink and Kate Winslet swim.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Avatar is still playing around the world and it’s still doing incredibly well in numerous countries. Although to date Avatar has sold fewer tickets than Titanic and a number of other movies, it’s undeniably a gigantic success. Much like Titanic was a gigantic success, along with Star Wars and Jaws and E.T. and The Ten Commandments and Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago and Mary Poppins and Ben-Hur (1959) and Samson and Delilah and Duel in the Sun and The Bells of St. Mary’s and Gone with the Wind and King Kong and Ben-Hur (1925) and The Birth of a Nation and other movies released before and after.
Just remember to always take claims such as Biggest Box-Office Hit Ever! Record-Breaking Box-Office Revenues! — no matter how old or how new the movie in question — with a boulder-sized grain of salt.
Currency exchange source: x-rates.com. According to the website, most of their pre-2009 exchange rates were culled from Federal Reserve Bank and International Monetary Fund data.
Photo: Avatar (WETA / 20th Century Fox); Titanic (20th Century Fox)