Inflation 101: Why Avatar Isn’t the Biggest Movie of All Time (And What Movie Is)

This past week, the technologically ground-breaking 3-D movie Avatar was hailed across the globe as the new king of the box office world, “topping” Titanic‘s box office take by grossing over $1.859 billion worldwide.

According to the media, this week Avatar will also surpass the $600 million mark in the United States and overtake Titanic as the domestic box office record holder as well.

I understand why, when reporting box office totals, the press loves to cite gross dollars.   The problem with that, of course, is that those gross figures ignore the corrosive effects of inflation on the value of money.

After all, nobody would care if they printed the real story that said, in terms of the domestic box office, Avatar is only the 21st biggest movie of all time – which it was as of the end of January.

When Gone with the Wind came out in 1939 a dollar had the purchasing power of over $15 today.   What’s more, back then matinees and evening shows were only five and ten cents, respectively.

Based on that information, one can see that it was possible to see ten evening shows for a buck back in 1939 – or twenty matinees.

How many shows can you see for $15 today?

If we compared the US domestic movie grosses in inflation-adjusted dollars, the all-time biggest movies as of January 31, 2010, are:

Rank Movie Box Office Take Year
1. Gone with the Wind $1,507,252,900 (1939)
2. Star Wars $1,328,772,200 (1977)
3. The Sound of Music $1,062,418,700 (1965)
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial $1,058,233,300 (1982)
5. The Ten Commandments $977,260,000 (1956)
6. Titanic $957,460,300 (1997)
7. Jaws $955,468,000 (1975)
8. Doctor Zhivago $926,050,500 (1965)
9. The Exorcist $824,842,300 (1973)
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs $813,140,000 (1937)
11. 101 Dalmations $745,382,700 (1961)
12. The Empire Strikes Back $732,427,600 (1980)
13. Ben-Hur $731,080,000 (1959)
14. Return of the Jedi $701,683,200 (1983)
15. The Sting $665,005,700 (1973)
16. Raiders of the Lost Ark $657,538,200 (1981)
17. Jurassic Park $643,095,600 (1993)
18. The Graduate $638,362,600 (1967)
19. Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace $632,800,500 (1999)
20. Fantasia $619,503,400 (1941)

So, think about this list the next time you are trying to determine how much money you’ll need to retire.

Hopefully it will remind you that the further you are away from retirement, the higher the risk that the dreaded inflation monster will completely devour your nest egg if you don’t keep contributing to it.

Never forget to feed the monster.


  1. 1


    Len Penzo – sharp ears and eagle eyes! Well spotted Len. But media journalist know nothing about inflation! Used to cost a quarter to go to the movies. Now, it’s $10 (and that’s without the popcorn). Remember your old post about the dollar bill toilet roll!

    Just imagine buying a $1mm insurance policy now. Will probably be worth nothing in 20 years!

    • 3


      @Mr. CC: We can all thank the Fed for the criminal debasement of our currency. Thomas Jefferson is surely rolling over in his grave right now – he was adamantly opposed to any form of a central bank.

      To address your first point: What else I found interesting, though, was that not only has the value of the dollar eroded, but so has the number of movies one can get for an equivalent value. I can only assume that is attributable to the costs associated with more elaborate productions and the astronomical salaries of the lead actors.

  2. 4


    you should then compare the most an actor or actress got paid upfront for a movie (inflation adjusted). One column listing the nominal amount, the other the inflation adjusted amount! would be very interest!

  3. 6

    James from Leather Reclining Chairs says

    James Cameron has definately made another fine piece of work this time. Avatar is stunning, and although the actual plot is a bit cliche the movie experience more than makes up for this. Will we see a sequel? I hope so :)

  4. 7


    I don’t think your figures for Gone With The Wind and some of the other films you have listed takes into account subsequent releases. Obviously as of yet, Avatar has not had the benefit of this. So in a couple of years time we will know its true value.

    Interesting post. Keep up the good work.

    • 8


      I do think Avatar will eventually make the Top 5 or so films of all time – but it will be very hard to overtake Gone with the Wind, which was released during a time when people went to movies two or three times per week. I’ll be many many people saw that film three or four times in the theaters.

  5. 10


    Great post, as always! Such awesome, interesting information! My husband and I really got a kick out of this post. And Gone With the Wind is definitely one of my favorite movies. God bless!

  6. 13


    Len – you’ve explained the inflation monster in a language the masses can understand. CNN should pick this up!

    Brilliant tie in to retirement planning. A dollar in 1939 is equivalent to $15–is that based on the CPI? Measured in gold ($35/oz then) the 1939 dollar buys over $30 today! (It’s worse valued in oil!)

  7. 14


    I thought about this when Titanic supposedly broke the record. It’s a great movie, but I know people who saw Star Wars 10 times. Everybody went to see that movie.

    Your list vindicated what I suspected. Thanks Len.

    • 15


      @Kevin: I use an inflation calculator that bases it’s numbers before 1975 on the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). For later years it uses the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States.

      @Bret: Glad to be of service. I know I saw Star Wars twice in the theater.

  8. 16


    We saw Avatar at the first showing of the day when it was $8.50 pp (3D). I can’t imagine spending the amount it takes to see it at the Imax.

    This is why we’re redbox fans. It costs $1 to see a movie. Tonight we watched “This is It”.

    P.S. That concert would have been fantastic. I enjoyed seeing the shell of it via video.

    • 17


      Redbox is a great way to see movies! The Honeybee and I use Netflix, which I think is both convenient and a great value too.

      As for “This Is It,” I haven’t seen it but I’m sure it would have been something. That was really MJ’s last hurrah to try and revive his career and I think he knew it.

  9. 18


    I don’t think we’ll ever see a movie beat gone with the wind, unless it’s something truly immersive. Avatar had great 3d effects. It had Great animation and special effects, but as a movie I would say it was only ok to good. Inflation is almost never mentioned in big movies totals as for the reasons you mentioned.

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