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Why Domestic Box Office Records Are Being Broken Annually

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Optimus PrimeTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen with Optimus Prime, Autobot ruler (voiced by Peter Cullen). Also featuring humans Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf, and Josh Duhamel, Michael Bay’s actioner was the biggest domestic box office hit of 2009.
  • Box office for thought: Are domestic records really being broken just about every year?
  • Further below is a look back at the top domestic box office hits of 1947, one of Hollywood’s true banner years.

Has one more domestic box office record truly been shattered?

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Shortly before Christmas, it was announced with much fanfare that despite these painful economic times the American movie business is having a record year, with more than $10.6 billion earned at the domestic box office in 2009 (in addition to $10.7 billion internationally).

Now, although that $10.6 billion figure would be impressive for a number of U.S. industries (definitely not for military contractors or pharmaceutical companies), it’s an official record only because ticket prices have been going up nearly every year.

In fact, Hollywood could go on breaking domestic box office records annually if ticket prices were hiked up a certain percentage each calendar year – with 3D/IMAX premiums providing an extra boost – so as to offset any expected drop (or lack of increase) in ticket sales. (Update: Another domestic box office record broken?)

When box office records aren’t really record-setting

Admittedly, as found in the New York Times, domestic attendance figures are the highest in five years, with 1.42 billion tickets sold at an average price of $7.46.

That’s five years.

As explained in that same Times piece, “when adjusted for inflation, 2002 had sales of $11.21 billion, while the totals for 2001, 2003 and 2004 also exceed this year’s tally.”

Putting things in perspective: As found at, 1.403 billion tickets have been sold in 2009 while in 2002 that figure reached 1.575 billion.

And that’s how this year’s widely heralded record-breaking feat at the domestic box office is made to look considerably less smashing.

Top Ten domestic hits of 2009

For the record, below are this year’s Top Ten domestic box office hits during the calendar year of 2009 (updated to include year-end figures; the total figure [in parentheses] includes 2010 revenues):

Welcome Stranger Joan Caulfield Barry FitzgeraldWelcome Stranger with Joan Caulfield and Barry Fitzgerald. One of the biggest hits of 1947 – a banner year at the domestic box office – Paramount’s Welcome Stranger reunited Going My Way stars Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, and Blue Skies stars Crosby and Joan Caulfield.

An actual banner year at the domestic box office: 1947

Putting things in even better perspective: According to the National Association of Theater Owners, an estimated 70 million people went to the movies every week in the United States (population: 144 million) in 1947. (The Wall Street Journal estimated an even higher number: 78.2 million weekly moviegoers.)

That means approximately 3.64 billion tickets* were sold even without multiplexes, 3D/IMAX theaters, mega-budget sequels, and state-of-the-art special effects.

The top movies at the domestic box office in 1947?

Well, nearly all of them were big-studio star vehicles. Few of these movies boasted special effects (Green Dolphin Street has a major earthquake), offering instead – for the most part in commercial, middle-to-lowbrow fashion – a mix of romance, adventure, drama, music, and comedy.

It was a vastly different type of audience then – hardly more sophisticated, but certainly older. Besides, television was just starting out, and there was no digital cable, DVD, pay-per-view options, all-sports channels, video games, or online porn flicks and sex chatrooms to keep people away from movie houses.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

On the other hand, competition was fierce among the movies themselves, as the Hollywood studios were far more active back in those days.

* U.S. box office records were truly shattered in 1946, when 4.067 billion tickets were sold.

Top 20 movies of 1947

Below is a list of the Top 20 films of 1947 (including late 1946 releases), via Variety‘s annual year-end estimates of each movie’s domestic rental figures (i.e., what the studios would actually pocket).

Not included above are movies that opened late in 1947. Variety specifically mentions the following:

All three titles would turn out to be sizable box office hits, along with other year-end releases like Henry King’s Captain from Castile (Tyrone Power, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero) and Norman Z. McLeod’s Road to Rio (Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour).

“Domestic Box Office Records” endnotes

Optimus Prime Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen image: DreamWorks | Paramount Pictures.

Barry Fitzgerald and Joan Caulfield Welcome Stranger movie image: Paramount Pictures.

“Why Domestic Box Office Records Are Being Broken Annually” last updated in September 2022.

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Alex -

I’m so but this article is very much flawed by comparing a year like 1947 when to only option to see a movie or anything for that matter was going to a theater.

Now we have every single movie that comes out in theaters at home in 6 months or less, either on DVD/Blue-Ray, pay per view or stuff like HBO. And did I mention piracy? Star Trek alone is said to have been downloaded from the internet more then 11 million times. That’s almost 100 million in ticket sells right there, not to mention that a movie that you download can be seen by 2,3,4 or 10 people. So while the movie was downloaded 11 million times, more then 100 million people might have seen it, all of that without paying anything else but their Internet connection.

People like and watch movies just as much (if not more) then they did 62 years ago, it’s just that today we have a lot more ways to do it.

mh -


The lack of other venues for film-watching is mentioned in the article.

TorrentFreak is the source for the 11 million pirated “Star Trek” downloads. Even if their figures are accurate (they’re based on BitTorrent data and I don’t know how that data is compiled), one can download “Star Trek” and still watch it on the big screen. Unless, perhaps, you’re in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. How good was the pirated version? High-def? Or a crappy recording some idiot did at a movie theater?

Also, those 11 million downloads weren’t all done in the US, and their impact at the US box office is highly debatable regardless of what the MPAA says.

Here’s an interesting article on piracy claims:

Alex -

I left Piracy at the back for a reason, it is huge but not as game-changing as people make it out. The other factors are a lot more important and you have to agree with me on that one. People still watch movies as much as they did, it’s just that they have more ways of doing that now.

And about your piracy questions. Those numbers are very exact since a tracker (sort of a bridge between servers and people downloading a and uploading stuff like movies, music or games) keeps track of the exact number of people that have downloaded a certain file. When it comes to the quality of the movie they vary depending on how soon they are released. They range from cams to Blue-Ray rips in full 1080p glory. And I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to keep track of every single tracker that is offering this stuff so 11 million could very well be 20 million since that site that reported 11 can only keep track of so many torrent trackers.

So piracy is not something to ignore mate.


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