Top box office: Domestic record broken (once again) – if you dwell in an alternative reality
Even though Will Ferrell's comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and the latest Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration, The Wolf of Wall Street, have opened more modestly than expected, while the Justin Bieber concert movie Believe has been totally discredited, the 2013 Christmas and New Year's season has been quite strong in the U.S. and Canada, with top box office hits ranging from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (though trailing its predecessor, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) to David O. Russell's all-star crime comedy-drama American Hustle.
According to Variety, figures are up 10 percent compared to 2012, while the total 2013 box office tally up to Dec. 29 is a mere $1.6 million lower than the $10.837 billion record set last year.
Does this latest record-breaking box office news sound too good to be true?
Well, yes. Perhaps because it is.
See, Thor and Loki and Bilbo and Katniss wouldn't know about these pesky things, but on Planet Earth there is something called “inflation.” That's when prices go up. And that includes the price of movie tickets – in the early 21st century, also inflated by IMAX and 3D surcharges.
When box office records ain't really box office records
As an example: last year's $10.837 billion box office record would represent about $11 billion in 2013 dollars according to the U.S. government's Consumer Price Index.
As found on Box Office Mojo's yearly chart, which uses movie-ticket price averages released by the National Association of Theater Owners, so far 1.346,1 billion tickets have been sold in the United States and Canada in 2013. In 2012, 1.361,5 billion were sold.
So, 2013 will inevitably surpass 2012 in unadjusted box office grosses, but may trail last year in both inflation-adjusted figures and number of actual tickets sold.
As an aside, bear in mind that movie-ticket price increases don't quite follow the U.S. government's CPI, as other factors need to be accounted for, such as the aforementioned 3D and IMAX surcharges.
Now, even if 2013 surpasses 2012 in adjusted box office figures/ticket sales, it should still end up as only the 13th “most successful” year at the domestic box office – in ticket sales – since 1980.
Scroll down a bit if you want to check out the actual record-setting year in the domestic market, and its movies and stars.
Post-1980 record-breaking year in ticket sales
The top box office year on the domestic ticket-sales chart is 2002, when the total number of tickets sold reached 1.575,7 billion (inflation-adjusted box office gross: $11.86 billion). The top seven years on the chart, in fact, range from 1998 to 2004.
Well, here are the biggest releases in each of these years (see clarifying info further below):
- Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Cast: Tom Hanks. Matt Damon. Tom Sizemore. Edward Burns. Barry Pepper. Vin Diesel.
- George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).
Cast: Ewan McGregor. Liam Neeson. Natalie Portman.
- Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).
Cast: Jim Carrey.
- Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe. Emma Watson. Rupert Grint.
- Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002).
Cast: Tobey Maguire. Kirsten Dunst. James Franco. Willem Dafoe. Cliff Robertson.
- Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Cast: Viggo Mortensen. Elijah Wood. Ian McKellen. Cate Blanchett. Orlando Bloom. Liv Tyler. Karl Urban. Sean Astin. Ian Holm. Christopher Lee.
- Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon's Shrek 2 (2004).
Voice Cast: Mike Myers. Cameron Diaz. Antonio Banderas. Eddie Murphy.
Of course, let's not forget that late-year releases such as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (or, later on, James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar), actually sold most of their tickets during the following calendar year.
The actual top box office hit in 2003, for instance, was Pixar's Andrew Stanton-directed Finding Nemo, while the actual no. 1 movie of 1998 was James Cameron's Titanic, a late 1997 release toplining Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Gloria Stuart.
Top box office movies of 2013: If you make original, quality films…
As further evidence that moviegoers want original, quality entertainment, below you'll find the list of the top 15 movies at the 2013 domestic box office. Nine of them are sequels or reboots (ten if you include Oz the Great and Powerful), and more than half are 3D releases.
The Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. were the year's top two Hollywood majors. Disney has five movies among the top 15; Warners has three.
With the exception of the sleeper blockbuster Gravity, which, however dumbed down, targeted a more mature audience, every single one of the titles below were aimed at either teenagers/very young adults or little children.
Also worth noting, only five titles – including the animated Frozen and The Croods – feature key female characters.
And then the Righteous Ones cry and wail on social media as to why the Hollywood studios continuously place their focus on male-centered movies. Or why there are so many sequels and reboots. Or why most big-studio movies are braindead on arrival.
Sandra Bullock an exception to the rule
Curiously, two of 2013's female-centered hits – Gravity and The Heat – starred Sandra Bullock. The Best Actress Oscar winner (for The Blind Side, 2009), in fact, is the only star with two titles among the top 15 movies.
Note: As a commenter points out further below, Benedict Cumberbatch also has two movies among the top 15. Cumberbatch, however, isn't the star of either Star Trek: Into Darkness or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Without further ado, here's the Top 15 list (via Box Office Mojo).
And make sure to keep scrolling down a bit more, so you can become acquainted with the domestic box office's actual record-setting year – and its top movies and stars.
Top 15 box office movies of 2013
- Shane Black's Iron Man 3.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr. Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Cheadle. Ben Kingsley. Guy Pearce.
- Francis Lawrence's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence. Liam Hemsworth. Josh Hutcherson. Sam Claflin.
- Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud's Despicable Me 2.
Voice Cast: Steve Carell. Kristen Wiig. Benjamin Bratt. Russell Brand.
- Zack Snyder's Man of Steel.
Cast: Henry Cavill. Amy Adams. Michael Shannon. Kevin Costner. Diane Lane.
- Dan Scanlon's Monsters University.
Voice Cast: Billy Crystal. John Goodman. Helen Mirren.
- Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity.
Cast: Sandra Bullock. George Clooney.
- Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee's Frozen.
Voice Cast: Kristen Bell. Jonathan Groff. Josh Gad.
- Justin Lin's Fast & Furious 6.
Cast: Paul Walker. Vin Diesel. Dwayne Johnson. Michelle Rodriguez. Jordana Brewster.
- Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful.
Cast: James Franco. Mila Kunis. Rachel Weisz. Michelle Williams.
- J.J. Abram's Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Cast: Chris Pine. Zachary Quinto. Benedict Cumberbatch. Karl Urban. Zoe Saldana.
- Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth. Natalie Portman. Tom Hiddleston. Anthony Hopkins.
- Marc Forster's World War Z.
Cast: Brad Pitt. Mireille Enos. David Morse.
- Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Cast: Martin Freeman. Ian McKellen. Cate Blanchett. Orlando Bloom. Richard Armitage. Benedict Cumberbatch.
- Kirk De Micco & Chris Sanders' The Croods.
Voice Cast: Emma Stone. Ryan Reynolds. Nicolas Cage. Catherine Keener. Cloris Leachman.
- Paul Feig's The Heat.
Cast: Sandra Bullock. Melissa McCarthy.
'American Hustle' to displace 'The Heat'?
Update: As a result of awards season buzz and the upcoming Oscar nominations, David O. Russell's mostly male-centered, “adult-oriented” American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence, may ultimately end up among the top 15 box office movies released in 2013.
If so, the female-centered The Heat will be gone from the list, which means Sandra Bullock will have only one movie among 2013's top 15 hits while Jennifer Lawrence will have two – although, in all fairness, Lawrence doesn't actually have a lead role in American Hustle.
More on so-called domestic box office records.
Top box office year? Try 1946
Before wrapping this up, a couple of things should be made clear.
a) In addition to box office grosses (domestic and international; the latter is reportedly up about 5 percent this year, though currency fluctuations must be taken into account), Hollywood studios rely on ancillary revenues (once again, domestic and international) to justify their investments. Representing the bulk of the studios' revenues, these include television, VOD, DVD/Blu-ray, and merchandising sales.
b) If you truly want a record-breaking year at the domestic box office, look no further than … 1946. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 4.067 billion tickets were sold that year.
Recipe for success: Adult-oriented fare & sexually charged Westerns
What made 1946 so special?
Well, for starters, the end of World War II and the return of millions of individuals to civilian life. Due to a dramatic fall in government spending, the U.S. economy was hardly at its strongest that year (GDP plummeted 11.6 percent), but the movies provided a relatively cheap form of entertainment.
Instead of superheroes, hobbits, CGI, and 3D, Hollywood offered plenty of comedies, musicals, and melodramas – plus several film noirs and a couple of risqué Westerns. Below is a list of notable 1946 titles:
- Duel in the Sun.
Dir.: King Vidor (with uncredited assistance from, among others, William Cameron Menzies and Josef von Sternberg).
Cast: Jennifer Jones. Gregory Peck. Joseph Cotten. Walter Huston. Lillian Gish. Lionel Barrymore. Herbert Marshall.
Dir.: Henry King.
Cast: Jeanne Crain. Glenn Langan. Lynn Bari.
Dir.: Charles Vidor.
Cast: Rita Hayworth. Glenn Ford. George Macready.
- The Outlaw (filmed in 1941, briefly seen in 1943, in wider release in 1946)
Dir.: Howard Hughes (with an uncredited Howard Hawks).
Cast: Jane Russell. Jack Buetel. Walter Huston. Thomas Mitchell.
- The Razor's Edge.
Dir.: Edmund Goulding.
Cast: Tyrone Power. Gene Tierney. Clifton Webb. Anne Baxter. John Payne. Herbert Marshall.
- Blue Skies.
Dir.: Stuart Heisler.
Cast: Bing Crosby. Fred Astaire. Joan Caulfield.
- Till the Clouds Roll By.
Dir.: Richard Whorf.
Cast: Robert Walker. Van Heflin. Lucille Bremer. Guest Stars: Judy Garland. June Allyson. Tony Martin. Dinah Shore. Kathryn Grayson. Cyd Charisse. Lena Horne. Frank Sinatra.
- The Jolson Story.
Dir.: Alfred E. Green.
Cast: Larry Parks. Evelyn Keyes. William Demarest.
- Easy to Wed.
Dir.: Edward Buzzell.
Cast: Van Johnson. Esther Williams. Lucille Ball. Keenan Wynn.
- The Harvey Girls.
Dir.: George Sidney.
Cast: Judy Garland. John Hodiak. Angela Lansbury. Ray Bolger.
- The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Dir.: Tay Garnett.
Cast: John Garfield. Lana Turner. Cecil Kellaway.
- The Best Years of Our Lives.
Dir.: William Wyler.
Cast: Myrna Loy. Fredric March. Dana Andrews. Teresa Wright. Virginia Mayo. Harold Russell. Cathy O'Donnell.
- Two Years Before the Mast.
Dir.: John Farrow.
Cast: Alan Ladd. Brian Donlevy. William Bendix. Barry Fitzgerald.
Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock.
Cast: Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Claude Rains. Leopoldine Konstantin.
- The Green Years.
Dir.: Victor Saville.
Cast: Tom Drake. Charles Coburn. Beverly Tyler.
- Two Sisters from Boston.
Dir.: Henry Koster.
Cast: June Allyson. Kathryn Grayson. Peter Lawford.
- The Kid from Brooklyn.
Dir.: Norman Z. McLeod.
Cast: Danny Kaye. Virginia Mayo. Vera-Ellen.
- Night and Day.
Dir.: Michael Curtiz.
Cast: Cary Grant. Alexis Smith. Monty Woolley. Jane Wyman.
- The Yearling.
Dir.: Clarence Brown.
Cast: Gregory Peck. Jane Wyman. Claude Jarman Jr.
Dir.: Louis King.
Cast: Fred MacMurray. Anne Baxter.
- To Each His Own.
Dir.: Mitchell Leisen.
Cast: Olivia de Havilland. John Lund.
- Ziegfeld Follies.
Dir.: Charles Walter, George Sidney, Roy Del Ruth, Vincente Minnelli, and others.
Cast: William Powell. Guest Stars: Judy Garland. Kathryn Grayson. Gene Kelly. Lucille Ball. Fred Astaire. Red Skelton. Esther Williams. Cyd Charisse. Virginia O'Brien. Fanny Brice.
- Anna and the King of Siam.
Dir.: John Cromwell.
Cast: Irene Dunne. Rex Harrison. Linda Darnell.
- Road to Utopia.
Dir.: Hal Walker.
Cast: Bing Crosby. Dorothy Lamour. Bob Hope. Hillary Brooke.
- My Darling Clementine.
Dir.: John Ford.
Cast: Henry Fonda. Victor Mature. Linda Darnell.
No less than 19 of the 25 movies listed above were either female-centered or ensemble male/female efforts. All but one – Smoky – were chiefly aimed at adults.
And in case you're wondering, the year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans of good moral standing were outraged at … the Westerns Duel in the Sun and The Outlaw – ultimately two of the top box office hits of the decade.
Note: A few of the titles listed above – e.g., Duel in the Sun – were released later in the year and earned most of their money in 1947.
 Although never a major star, Joan Caulfield was featured in a few of the top box office movies of the late 1940s, most notably the 1947 releases Welcome Stranger, also with Crosby, and Dear Ruth, opposite William Holden.
Some have suggested that J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye antihero Holden Caulfield was inspired by the surnames of the two Dear Ruth leads. The problem with this theory is that the name – even if not necessarily the character himself – had already been featured in a couple of Salinger's short stories earlier in the decade.
Image of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3, 2013's top box office hit in the U.S. & Canada: Walt Disney Enterprises.
Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy The Heat image: 20th Century Fox.
Image of Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Joan Caulfield in Blue Skies, one of the biggest hits of 1946, the top box office year in (U.S. cinema) history: Paramount Pictures.
“Top Box Office Movies: Women to the Sidelines (Except Sandra Bullock) + What's the Actual Record-Breaking Year?” last updated in July 2018.