The Bing Crosby Movie Page: A comparison of box office grosses for Bing Crosby's top selling movies to the top movies of the 2000s after correction for inflation and population changes.

A useful measure of a star's popularity is the total money he took in at the box office. The more people like him, the more they will pay to go see his movies. The problem with using box office grosses to compare stars from different eras is that inflation changes the relative value of the box office gross. For example: if raw box office receipts are compared, Titanic earned more money than Gone with the Wind. But, after factoring in the effect of inflation over the 60-odd years between these two movies it turns out that Gone with the Wind actually earned more money. While this sounds reasonable and is done quite often to compare movies and stars from different eras, it's only half the story.

While calculating the total box office revenues for Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley's movies to compare their popularity for my ELVIS PRESLEY - BING CROSBY COMPARISON PAGE, it occurred to me that inflation wasn't the only factor effecting the box office grosses. Population also has to be considered.

Box office gross receipts are like the Neilson rating in television: they're a measure of a movie or star's popularity, popularity in this case being considered as the fraction of the total population willing to pay to see that particular movie or star. To fairly compare movie grosses across time, the grosses of the earlier movies have to be increased to adjust for the higher population to which newer movies can be marketed.

Here's an analogy: Let's say you have two different movies playing in two different towns. Town "A" has 100 people, town "B" has 1,000 people. Let's also say that 50 of the people in "A" saw their movie whereas 250 people in "B" saw theirs. If some executive New York saw these raw numbers without making an adjustment for the populations, he'd be forced to assume that the movie in town "B" was more popular than the one in town "A." However, if the population of "A" is mathematically brought up to the same as town "B," then by proportion the movie in "A" would have been seen by 500 people and would therefore be the more popular movie. In addition, if town "A" saw it's movie in 1940 and "B" in 2005 and we wanted to compare box offices grosses as a measure of popularity, then a second correction factor for inflation also has to be factored in.

That's what this page is going to attempt to do: correct Bing Crosby's and Elvis Presley's movie box office grosses for both inflation and population influences to 2005 values so that their movie popularities can be compared.

In calculating inflation effects for a specific item, it isn't good enough to use the cost of living index because it represents an average of several hundred consumer goods and services; the inflation factor for the specific item has to be determined. Fortunately, www.natoonline.org lists how average U.S. movie ticket prices have changed over the years. For example; in 2005 the average ticket cost $6.39. In 1940, the same ticket cost only $0.30. By dividing the cost of the ticket in 2005 by the cost in 1940, we obtain the factor by which gross ticket sales in 1940 have to be multiplied by to correct for inflation. Once this number is calculated, then it needs to be multiplied by the ratio of the population in 2005 divided by the population in 1940 to correct for the increase in population.

(Note: this is not double counting, population and inflation effects are completely separate. For example: suppose the population of the U.S. had remained constant, inflation would still have to be corrected for. If inflation had been held to 0, but the population grew, then the gross would still have to be corrected for it for fair comparisons.)

Here are some example ticket prices and population numbers:

Date.................average ticket price...................population

1940...........................$0.30................................132 million

1955...........................$0.54................................167 million

1974...........................$1.89................................213 million

2005...........................$6.39................................296 million

 
Using the extensive tables and charts from which these numbers were taken, correction factors for box office grosses from any year can be formulated that compensate for both inflation and population. Applying these to Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley's movie grosses (from www.the-numbers.com) provide the following totals:

Decade.................total box office.............Adjusted to 2005

Bing Crosby:

1930s.......................$3.0 million................ ......$143 million

1940s.....................$75.0 million................ ....$2,991 million

1950s.....................$73.0 million.....................$1,529 million

1970s.....................$19.0 million.................. ......$89 million

Total...........................................................$4,752 million

 
Elvis Presley:

Based on decade
centered on 1964......$67.0 million................ ......$708 million

 
What these adjusted numbers imply is that in his time, as a move star Bing Crosby was 6.7 times more popular than Elvis Presley was in his. This is easy to understand because Bing Crosby had three movies that were the top money makers the years they were released and many of his other films were in the top ten for their years. The highest-earning movie Elvis ever had was Viva Las Vegas, which only made it to 11th place.

To be fair to Elvis, it has to acknowledged that he made half as many movies as Bing. While Elvis fans may request that this requires Bing's total to be halved for comparison (reducing it to $2.351 billion, indicating that he was still well over 3 times as popular in the movies as Elvis), it needs to be acknowledged that the number of movies Elvis made was partially determined by their success. If he had starred in several #1 box office hits then the movie companies would have supported him to make more. I leave it to the reader to determine for themselves what is fair.

UPDATE!!! After receiving several emails from Elvis fans who claimed the comparison above was unfair because Elvis' movies had to compete against televison whereas Bing's didn't, I undertook an extensive study of all the issues that effect the per capita ticket purchasing trends for every year from 1929 to 2004 and posted them on the page: BOX OFFICE DATA. The per capita ticket purchasing values indicate that television had an enormous effect on how many times the average person went to the movies. In 1946 the average was 34 times a year, by 1961 that had dropped to 7 times a year and eventually to 5 by 2004. Applying the data from that page can only be done for specific years or movies. To compare Elvis to Bing, I selected their top two movies in which they were the main star: Viva Las Vegas and Blue Hawaii for Elvis, The Bells of St. Mary's and White Christmas for Bing. Here's how the numbers cook out:

 
Elvis:

Viva Las Vegas,.1964,.$9M,.adjusted for inflation, population and purchasing trends to 2004 = $94 million

Blue Hawaii,.1961,.$10M,.adjusted for inflation, population and purchasing trends to 2004 = $104 million

 
Bing:

The Bells of St. Mary's,.1945,.$21M,.adjusted for inflation, population and purchasing trends to 2004 = $138 million

White Christmas,.1954,.$30M,.adjusted for inflation, population and purchasing trends to 2004 = $233 million

 
Summing the values for each man suggests that Bing was still at least twice as popular as Elvis in the movie venue.

To get a better appreciation for how popular Bing Crosby was as a star, consider the following additional movies adjusted for inflation, population and ticket purchasing trends:

Movie..................................Date....total box office.........Adjusted to 2004

Going My Way........................1944...... $17 million...................$121 million

Welcome Stranger..................1947 ......$15 million...................$90 million

 
(Note: I searched dozens of sites listing box office grosses and although many corrected for inflation, none of them corrected for population and per capita ticket purchasing changes. To the best on my knowledge this page is the only place where it has been done.)

 

The following additional information was provided by the president of BING magazine:

 
In February, using data from 72 years of the Quigley Publishing Company's annual Top Ten Money-Making Star Poll of motion picture exhibitors, the Top Money-Makers of All Time were named. The Quigley Poll, conducted every year since 1932, is an annual survey of motion picture exhibitors, which asks them to vote for the ten stars that generated the most box-office revenue in the preceding year for their theatres. Long regarded as one of the most reliable indicators of a Star's box-office draw, the Quigley Poll has been cited in hundreds of publications and appears annually in Quigley Publishing Company's International Motion Picture Almanac and on their site; www.quigleypublishing.com.

To come up with a weighted score, an actor received 10 points for a first place finish, nine for a second place finish, etc. The total score was determined by adding up the weighted scores from each year that the actor was voted on the list. John Wayne's appearance 25 times in the poll from 1949 to 1974 yielded 172 points versus 165 points for second place Clint Eastwood, who has been on the list 21 times. Tom Cruise placed third with 133.5 points combining six first place finishes with 16 appearances on the QP poll and was closely followed by Bing. Of the current active stars, it appears that only Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise have a reasonable chance of overtaking John Wayne in the future. Perhaps reflecting shorter careers in Hollywood than men, no women made it into the Top Ten.

The top ten were:

1 John Wayne 172

2 Clint Eastwood 165

3 Tom Cruise 133.5

4 Bing Crosby 111

5 Gary Cooper 106.5

6 Clark Gable 95

7 Burt Reynolds 90

8 Tom Hanks (Tie) 83

Bob Hope (Tie) 83

10 Paul Newman 76

 

This matches up in parts with a survey of the top movie box office stars of the twentieth century, based on estimated ticket sales over the years:

Star estimated ticket sales (not corrected for population):

1. Clark Gable 1,168,300,000

2. John Wayne 1,114,000,000

3. Bing Crosby 1,077,900,000

4. James Stewart 981,900,000

5. Cary Grant 942,500,000

6. Spencer Tracy 937,200,000

7. Gary Cooper 878,600,000

8. Mickey Rooney 867,900,000

9. Harrison Ford 852,700,000

10. Gregory Peck 728,000,000

Clark Gable's top position must owe much to the incredible success of Gone With The Wind and John Wayne's prolific and long career deservedly puts him in second position. It is a real tribute to Bing's popularity over many years to see him so well placed above those who are more often perceived as the legendary Hollywood greats.

 
The numbers on this page provide perspective on just how popular a star Bing Crosby was in his era. When combined with his unbelievable success in the music world, it must be conceded that he is arguably the most popular entertainer of any era. Sadly, because styles have changed he has faded from the public consciousness. Generations are being born who will never know of him or his accomplishments. We may truly never witness his kind of greatness again.

 
Links:

If you like Bing Crosby you may be interested in the following URL, which is to the site associated with BING, a magazine devoted to him:

http://members.aol.com/macwilmslo/BING_magazine.html?f=fs

 
You may be interested in the following URL, which chronicles more of his achievements.

http://history.acusd.edu/gen/recording/derbingle.html

NEW LINK!!! Be sure to check out the Bing's Friends page at: http://www.geocities.com/one_sonoma_rose/BingsHomePage.html?1121136749218

 

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