The 20 Most Popular Movies of all Time: U.S. box office totals for the top money-earners corrected for inflation, population and ticket purchasing trends.

 
While adjusting for inflation more fairly compares an older movie's success to modern films, it's only one of three factors that should be taken into account. The other two are population changes and per capita ticket purchasing trend changes.

The U.S. population in 1949 was 149,000,000, less than one-half of 2012. To compare the success of a movie from 1949 to one in 2012 the total box office gross must be doubled, after increasing it to adjust for inflation, to reflect the fact that its potential audience doubled over those years.

Social, political, and economic factors influence the number of people willing to pay to go to the movies. These factors can be determined by calculating the per capita ticket purchasing rate for a particular year. This accounts for all social, economical, and political factors such as the availability of expendable cash, number of theater screens, relative cost of tickets, competition from television, the rapid releases of movies on DVDs, and the improvement of home theater equipment. For Example, in 1946 the per capita movie ticket purchasing rate for the average person was 34 tickets a year. In 2012 this average rate had dropped to only 4.3 tickets per person per year in response mainly to competition from television.

By adjusting for all three parameters that effect the total box office receipts for a particular movie, a more accurate comparison can be made between movies released in different eras. The data for these correction parameters is available at: BOX OFFICE DATA.

To determine a movie's box office gross adjusted for inflation, population, and per capita ticket purchasing trends, its box office total was multiplied by the ratio of the 2012 average ticket price to the release year ticket price to correct for inflation, the ratio of the 2012 population to the release year population, and the ratio of the per capita ticket purchasing trend in 2012 to the per capita rate in the release year. This provides a dollar amount reflecting how the film would have done in 2012. For example, let's look at Bing Crosby's 1945 blockbuster The Bells of St. Mary's:

 
Total 1945 box office = $21.3 million

Adjusted for inflation = $21.3 million x $7.94 (2012 average ticket price) = $497 million
...................................................$0.34 (1945 average ticket price)

Adjusted for population = $497 million x 315M (population in 2012) = $1,119 million
.......................................................140M (population in 1945)

Adjusted for per capita
ticket purchasing trends = $1,119 million x 4.3 (average rate for 2012) = $158 million
................................................. ..... ..30.46 (average rate for 1945)

As can be seen, adjusting for only inflation or population gives an inflated number suggesting that the relative popularity of the movie was greater than it truly is. The reason is that in 1945 people went to the movies over 6 times as often as they do today.

It should be noted that although dollar amounts are used to rank the movies, these numbers should more accurately be considered as popularity numbers since they indicate how the movies should have done in the 2012 market.

The following list ranks the most popular movies of all time after adjusting for inflation, population and per capita ticket purchasing trends:

Because of the rapid release of movies on VHS, DVD and most recently Blu-ray, for the last 25 years the vast majority of popular films have not been re-released in theaters. This puts them at a disadvantage when comparing them to older films whose box office gross includes the receipts for multiple re-releases. For this reason only the initial release grosses were considered.

At this point I must pause to express my most profound appreciation To Elizabeth Logan, who provided not only more accurate data for initial box office grosses but also inspired me to update the entire page for 2012. Her contributions to this page have been invaluable. (Thanks, Beth!)

The following grosses are corrected for inflation, population, and per capita ticket purchasing trends:

 
1. The Sound of Music............................1965..........$1,591 million
2. The Graduate....................................1975..........$1,130 million
3. E.T..................................................1982..........$1,119 million
4. Titanic..................................... .......1997..........$1,015 million...
5. Star Wars.........................................1977..........$1,003 million
6. Dr. Zhivago.......................................1965........ ....$999 million
7. Jaws................................................1975......... ...$996 million
8. Love Story,. .....................................1970.............$980 million
9. The Sting..........................................1973.......... ..$967 million..........
10. The Exorcist....................................1973......... ...$939 million
11. Airport,... ......................................1970.............$925 million
12. The Godfather,....................... . ......1972.............$882 million
13. Ben Hur..........................................1959.............$837 million.
14. The Jungle Book...............................1967.............$803 million..
15. Raiders of the Lost Ark......................1981.............$769 million
16. Avatar,.............. ............................2009.............$761 million
17. Jurassic Park...................................1993.............$744 million
18. Mary Poppins...................................1964........... .$730 million
19. Return of the Jedi.....................n......1983.............$721 million
20. The Empire Strikes Back....................1980.............$709 million...
21. American Graffiti,........................ ....1973.............$706 million

I'm breaking the list here to emphasize an important point that Ms. Logan brought up. Below 600 million there are many movies that qualify to be on this list, such as: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Fiddler on the Roof, The Towering Inferno, Beverly Hills Cop and so on. She is absolutely correct. They are not listed because going so would make the list so long as to be unwieldy. I'm including the following additonal entries because they were on the original list and return visitors may be interested in what happened to them during the most recent update.

 
22. Gone With The Wind,.........................1939.............$587 million
23. Forest Gump...................................1994.............$579 million...
24. The Lion King...................................1994.............$579 million...
25. The 10 Commandments,...................1956.............$547 million
26. Shrek II..........................................2004.............$436 million
28. 101 Dalmatians................................1959.............$157 million
29. Bambi............................................1942........,,.....$32 million...

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Return visitors to this page may notice that several movies have moved up or down in rank. This is because new data changed the initial grosses for many of the films and the per capital ticket purchasing trend for 2012 is not the same as it was in 2005 when the list was first made. These factors also caused previously uncited movies to be introduced into the top 20. Rather than eliminate the lower ranked movies I retained them for greater completeness, even though it stretches the list beyond its intended 20-movie limit.

There is considerable uncertainty about the numbers for The Jungle Book. While most sources cite 74 million for its 1967 release, others state is was closer to 28 million. Compounding the confusion is the fact that IMBD lists a 1978 re-release whereas BoxOfficeMojo and many others do not. It's possible that the 74 million number includes both the 1967 and 1978 receipts. Until I discover a more accurate initial release gross, I will continue to use the most widely quoted number of 74 million.

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What, you might ask, happened to the iconic Gone With The Wind? Why is it so far down the list? The answer is simply that while it was a great hit it only took in $36 million from its initial release. The bulk of its total box office gross came from the six times it has been re-released. Counting these would be as unfair to the new movies as it would be to count their VHS, DVD and Blu-ray sales and not count them for Gone with the Wind. Similarly, this is why the three original Star Wars movies ended up lower than might be expected, much of their total box office was from re-releases.

Why was The Sound Of Music so popular? The answer is that several factors combined to focus enormous popular sentiment for it.

The lead star, Julie Andrews, was enormously popular on Broadway as the star of My Fair Lady, one of the most successful plays every produced. When it was reported that she'd been passed over in favor of Audrey Hepburn for the movie version of the play, there was a nationwide outrage. Shorty thereafter Disney Studios released the wildly successful Mary Poppins (the 18th most popular movie of all time) starring Julie Andrews. The two events catapulted her to unbelievable levels of popularity, hyping the American public in her favor. When The Sound Of Music came out less than a year later people flocked to it in droves. Although often criticized as being too sweet and idealistic by critics, the American people were primed for just such a movie. The early 1960s was a tumultuous time as the Vietnam war escalated with no end in site. People were desperate for a few hours of simple peace and hope. The Sound Of Music was just what they were looking for.

Supporting the movie's popularity was the outstanding success of the soundtrack featuring Julie Andrews' beautiful singing. It has sold over 11 million copies and is still being produced today, half a century after the movie came out. Like the success of Celine Dion's Titanic album (9 million units sold) supported the movie of the same name, so Julie Andrews' album supported The Sound Of Music.

Finally, just as the fact that the movie Titanic was a true story, or at least based on an actual ship sinking, and had its popularity boosted by stories of survivors attending premiers, so also was The Sound Of Music a true story and several of the Van Trapp children were featured in widely circulated news stories about their watching the movie. Titanic also benefited from the televised discovery of the actual Titanic. In the same way The Sound Of Music received a boost from the fact that the Van Trapp family had moved to Vermont and opened a lodge where guests could stay and hear them sing. News stories with photos of them and their lodge validated the "true story" aspect of the movie. (The Van Trapp lodge is still active and thousands of people stay there every year.) One additional plus for the movie is that because the Van Trapps decided to come to the United States to live, it appealed to the nation's nationalistic sympathies.

I don't wish to create the impression that the movie's success was only the result of the confluence of random events. It was an excellent movie by any standards regardless of critical reviews, garnering four Golden Globe nominations of which it won two and ten Oscar nominations, of which it won five.

 

Data for this page was obtained from www.imdb.com, www.the-numbers.com, www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/5924/facts.htm, www.natoonline.org, www.worldwideboxoffice.com, Block, Alex Ben; Lucy Autrey, eds (2010) George Lucas's Blockbusters: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780061778896, the text Movie Time by Gene Brown, MacMillan, 1995, and The Hollywood Story, Joel W. Finler, Crown Publishing Inc, N.Y., 1988.

 

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