To adjust or not to adjust — thoughts on box office reporting

Posted by · 9:25 am · August 26th, 2009

Box officeIt seems every week somebody writes a comment on the Sunday Cents column questioning the historical figures I present or wondering why I choose to use adjusted numbers when I cite them. The answer, I suppose, is pretty simple. I feel that’s the way to most accurately provide context for what happens today.

Tracking box office in general is a fool’s game. Box office reporting is done by the studios that release the films on, more or less, the honor system. In other words, a theater playing “Julie & Julia” calls Sony and reports their gross and Sony compiles it and reports it to the press. What’s stopping them from inflating the actual figures? Nothing really.

There are independent services that also compile grosses from theaters and every studio has a general idea of what every other film is doing but neither is 100% accurate. So when it comes time to report a final figure for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”’s opening weekend ($100.1 million, if you forgot), there’s no way that Paramount is reporting a figure under $100 million, even if it actually clocked in at $99.2 million.

Another example: Sony stops reporting grosses for their films after a certain point while Fox reports until there isn’t a single screen left playing their picture. So “Angels & Demons” has a reported final gross of $133.4 million but it was still in 247 theaters when Sony stopped reporting. If Fox had done the same thing, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” would have a final gross of $207.6 million and not $208.7 million. Not a big deal? Maybe not, but the point remains that reported figures and historical data is far from 100% accurate. And yes, those “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” numbers are adjusted.

Finally, Kris has said before that he thinks dollar figures should be thrown out altogether and the number of tickets sold should be used instead. There’s a lot of logic to this since “Shrek 2” can sell three child-priced tickets in Iowa for $15 and “Moon” can sell one adult ticket at the Arclight and it’s worth $14.50. Fair? Hardly, and it makes the box office performance of kids films like “Shrek 2” all the more impressive. Again, all that is to say that box office should be used as a general barometer for success and not the be all, end all of judging performance.

So the argument against using adjusted figures is that it doesn’t accurately take into account things like Netflix, new media options and release patterns that are constantly changing, so the comparison is moot. Let’s look at “Titanic.” It opened with $28.6 million in 1997. Adjusted that becomes $44.8 million. Not adjusting means that we should be saying “Titanic” is comparable to “The Ugly Truth” and “Obsessed.” Adjusting means that “Titanic” is comparable to “The Hangover” and “Terminator Salvation.” Which makes more sense?

Sure, in 1997, people didn’t have huge flat screen TVs and Blu-ray DVDs coming out a few months after the theatrical release, but films were also released in far less theaters. “Terminator Salvation” opened in 3,530 theaters and “Titanic” opened in 2,674, so it evens out. If you go back to the 1980s, “Rocky III” opened in 939 theaters, so at that point it becomes silly to compare opening weekend figures. Accurate figures before 1982 simply don’t exist so those films are a non-issue. But I don’t think it’s crazy to adjust the numbers when comparing “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” with the other three “X-Men” films. Has anything really changed since 2000 aside from the price of a ticket? I don’t think so.

Let me hear your thoughts or questions in the comments and I’ll be happy to address them.

→ 26 Comments Tags: | Filed in: Box Office

26 responses so far

  • 1 8-26-2009 at 9:46 am

    A.J said...

    I really do wish that the number of tickets sold was widely known. It would make thing so much easier.

  • 2 8-26-2009 at 9:57 am

    The Rake said...

    I don’t think there is a perfect system. I appreciate the ideas put forth but on a simple level, I still enjoy seeing a $ figure to see how a film did. In the end, the amount of money a film makes is more important than anything else. Studios trying to recoup costs associated with putting a film together, releasing it, marketing it, etc. I think that’s why dollars still make the most – sense or fun – in the end for me.
    The Rake

  • 3 8-26-2009 at 10:08 am

    TIM said...

    I agree that knowing tickets sold would be better. Regarding inflation…on the all ‘all time grosses’ list some of the films have been re-released…so i think the amount a movie made in the re-release, when adjusted, should be adjusted for the year it was re-released and not be added to the original gross and adjusted from that year.

  • 4 8-26-2009 at 10:13 am

    Jesse said...

    Chad, you’re box office reporting is fine and I look forward to it every Sunday. Inflated figures at least attempts to even everything out and generally works.

  • 5 8-26-2009 at 10:14 am

    tony rock said...

    I think adjusting numbers is relevant for say the past 5-10 years (so yes, comparing all four X-men movies adjusted for inflation is okay), beyond that it becomes irrelevant because the market is always changing. You cant say if Gone with the Wind was released today it would make the same amount of money as it did in the 30’s.

  • 6 8-26-2009 at 10:21 am

    Ben said...

    There’s so many variables when it comes to tickets sold unless you have the actual numbers. If a film overperforms in mid-America and underperforms on the coasts it will have sold more tickets than its gross suggest (I live in Middle America and I’ve never paid more than 10 dollars a ticket for a non-3D/IMAX film). Also films with older audiences will have a bit of its gross shaved off for senior discounts, etc. Movies like Passion of the Christ are subject to a lot of group tickets which again dilute the gross (I’m pretty sure theaters give bulk discounts). As Chad said it’s an inprecise science.


    I’ve been following B.O. grosses for 10 years and generally like your analysis; and I do not disagree that adjusted figures should be taken into effect, but my problem with your analysis is when you say that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made 405M…”. It didn’t, now it may very well have at today’s ticket prices (let’s ignore arguments one way or another about the validity of the inflating ticket prices argument), but it didn’t make 405M. I think it’s be more intellectually honest to say “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made 317M (or 405M when adjusted).” I know it sounds like a pet peeve, but I think that would be better and less confusing.

    BTW,I tend to dismiss adjusted figures of movies of 50 years ago more so than that of 5 years ago, as I think it’s reasonable to assert that, say, Master and Commander would had made 112M in today’s numbers; whereas I’m not so sure Movie X from 1965 would had made 500M in today’s market.

  • 7 8-26-2009 at 10:26 am

    TIM said...

    for example: a lot of the disney movies have been re-released several times. (even gone with the wind and star wars) yeah a films gonna be a all time top grosser when you take the grosses from the five times it was re-released and adjust them back to the ticket price from the original 1930’s ticket price instead of the year they are being re-released.

  • 8 8-26-2009 at 10:51 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    TIM- most sites that list all-time adjusted charts do take into account re-releases. So the grosses that came from 1997’s Star Wars re-release are adjusted from 1997 dollars and not 1977.

  • 9 8-26-2009 at 11:38 am

    TIM said...

    Good to know! LOL now my mind is at ease! and thanks for the great posts!!!

  • 10 8-26-2009 at 11:50 am

    Xavier said...

    Adjusting box office grosses to compensate for inflation is detrimental in one respect because many films from decades ago often faced little competition from other films and studios at the time of their release.

    For example, Tootsie was number one at the box office for over ten consecutive weeks.

    Today, the film industry is much more competitive, and no movie will be number one for more than four or five weeks, at the absolute most.

    This is because, in addition to many more options available today than in the 1980s and earlier, new and attractive films come out every week, impeding a previously released film from singlehandedly dominating the market.

    This is a contributing reason for those who advocate use of unadjusted box office grosses.

  • 11 8-26-2009 at 12:06 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    A film will never be number one for ten consecutive weeks now but Tootsie was never able to debut with $100 mil because films played on roughly 1,000 screens at a time in those days. So it may not be fair to compare adjusted opening weekend figures, I believe it is fair to compare adjusted total grosses.

  • 12 8-26-2009 at 2:02 pm

    alfie said...

    I think comparing figures from today against films from years and years ago is silly. Its kind of apples and oranges. Like when people still bring up gone with the wind being number when adjusted.times are so different now outside forces, social climates etc etc
    I mean say gone with the wind was released today as is. But it is a completely new film does anyone believe it would be the highest grossing film of all time? hell it would struggle to get green lit but thats besides the point.
    thats how I feel anyway.

  • 13 8-26-2009 at 2:10 pm

    Mike C said...

    Chad, just a general question. Do you have an idea as to how many movies get made and released now vs prior decades. I know movies now hit theaters and are gone fairly quickly, but was wondering if that is because there is now so much more quantity to replace the fading films than in decades past.

  • 14 8-26-2009 at 2:13 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Adjusting isn’t taking a film and pretending it was released today. It’s taking the amount of money it made and putting into perspective with what that amount of money means today. It’s not like every film in 1939 is on the all-time chart. Gone With the Wind was a phenomenon the likes of which movies will never see again. Period. So in that respect, it belongs at the top of that chart and that chart is useful in separating the phenoms from the rest. But like I said, I only use films that fit the recent mold of distribution when I compare.

  • 15 8-26-2009 at 2:15 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Mike C- 605 movies were tracked in 2008. 536 are on the books for 1984. I have no idea about the years prior to 1980 but it seems relatively consistent since then.

  • 16 8-26-2009 at 6:07 pm

    Andrew J. said...

    Regarding that Indy 4 falling short of 100mil but Paramount reporting it as actually hitting that mark, Revenge of the fallen actually fell short of 200mil over it’s 1st 5-days (actuals had it at 198mil and change), and Paramount/Dreamworks did some creative accounting to get it to 200mil.

    As for current B.O. reporting, I realize the need to cite adjusted figures, but I’m fine with the non-adjusted figures. If I had my way, the only thing I’d like would be weekly reports on the no. of tickets sold. While Revenge of the Fallen tops the B.O. moneywise, it’s probably not even in the top 3 in actual tickets sold this summer.

  • 17 8-26-2009 at 6:19 pm

    Andrew J. said...

    Well, Revenge of the Fallen is probably in the top 3 but might not be the no.1 at in actual no. of tickets sold. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

  • 18 8-26-2009 at 7:18 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    I’ve often wondered if the movie industry would change the way the music industry did when SoundScan was introduced, and album sales were more precisely measured. (Country music is still enjoying the dividends of that change.)

    By taking away the biases of exhibitors and studios, what might we learn? For example, if the number crunchers are mostly concerned with movies in their first 2 weeks of release, maybe the box office of films in their 3rd week or later are underreported.

  • 19 8-26-2009 at 8:06 pm

    Xavier said...

    You say that you believe it is fair to compare adjusted total grosses.

    However, for grosses from previous decades to be fairly judged against grosses from today, they would need to be inflated in a controlled environment, which is unfortunately impossible to do.

    This is because of the dozens of factors that have changed from then to now — population figures, economic climates… even weather patterns, which can impact different peoples in different ways.

    That said, I don’t think that adjusting box office grosses is completely without merit; however, I think that it is important to accept that box office grosses from different eras can never been compared with complete accuracy, due to the uncontrolled environments of various periods.

  • 20 8-26-2009 at 8:53 pm

    Steven Kar said...

    How about this for adjusted grosses:

    All 23 James Bond movies have grossed $4.1 billion domestically.

    That’s an average of $178 million per movie.

    Connery’s Bonds average 250.

    Moore’s average 139.

    Brosnan’s average 188.

  • 21 8-26-2009 at 8:56 pm

    Steven Kar said...

    Here are more adjusted numbers. This time it’s Speilberg. (Sorry, I like numbers and I had too much time on my hands today.)

    Speily’s 24 movies have grossed $7.0713 billion adjusted to inflation.

    Which means that he averages $295 million domestically.

    Yes, that’s right! That’s almost $300 million domestically per movie!

  • 22 8-27-2009 at 12:21 am

    Gunther said...

    Personally I don’t think that some factors are that important as stated by some here. Take the weather as an example. If it’s good on one weekend, someone simply goes the next or the weekend after that. Hence you could say those factors influence on a local scale (weekends, days) but not on a global scale (overall gross).

    I agree it’s a little bit silly to compare movies from the 40s or 50s directly with more recent examples. But I also think that not adjusting the grosses of old movies is as silly as a direct comparison because it gives a totally wrong impression of the respective successes.

  • 23 8-27-2009 at 12:34 am

    bdc said...

    The only wise box office hype is no box office hype.

    Every time someone important at a studio sees a movie reduced to what it made on Friday, the art of cinema suffers.

  • 24 8-27-2009 at 1:44 am

    Glenn said...

    My basic feeling is that if you’re going to adjust figures then are you going to include DVD rental revenue onto the figures. So many people don’t see a movie at the cinema because they know it will be on DVD in a max of 6 months time (and they’re already saying “Basterds” will be on DVD for Christmas!)

    However, if this were 1979 then people wouldn’t have had that option. Which is why I think adjusted figures aren’t very good to use. A movie like “Transformers 2” making $400m today is an amazing feat!

  • 25 3-15-2010 at 10:33 pm

    Garrett said...

    I think you absolutely have to adjust. Distribution systems have changed for sure, but it probably evens out when you consider that movies used to play so much longer. Star Wars, for instance, was playing in its initial run for over a year. Now, they open much wider to get as many people in quickly as possible, and then they go away.

    My only problem now with adjusting is that with 3D even the adjusted figures are messed up. Adjusted for inflation figures are now showing Avatard as being near the top 10 all time, but because tickets cost so much more for it it’s actually closer to 50th, having sold a similar number of tickets to blockbusters like Revenge of the Sith, Spiderman 2, The Passion of the Christ, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

    And this is only going to continue. Look at Alice in Wonderland. It sold a moderately large number of tickets but it looks like a massive blockbuster and may well gross like $400 million, or at least $350 million. It’s not the same kind of smash hit as the movies I mentioned in the las paragraph. When Iron Man 2 comes out in 2 months it will likely be the first movie to open to over $200 million in its first weekend because the first topped $100 in its first 3 days (or came close) and in the last two years ticket prices have gone up anyway, so I don’t think there is any question it will open that big. If it does open that big it will be tough for it to not outgross Avatard. Toy Story 3 should do similar, if not more, business. And then this Christmas and next summer we’ll have the last 2 Harry Potter movies that will probably be even bigger initially (though admittedly will likely not sustain the business as long). If the all-time box office record falls 3 times over the course of 6 months I think people will finally realize just how stupid it is to not adjust or just count tickets.

  • 26 4-25-2010 at 7:44 am

    Kelly K said...

    I completely agree and this has bothered me for years. I get so tired of reading every week, every month and every year about “new” box office records. Who cares? As long as ticket prices keep going up, soon box office bombs will be more “successful” than a film like Jaws. That is one screwy way to judge movie success. Every other media: magazines, records, video games, etc… uses ‘units sold’ instead of receipts, so why can’t movies?? If the music industy used a similar scale that movies do, would Michael Jackson’s Thriller still be the #1 album of all time? No, it would probably rank much lower because albums cost $7.50 when it came out and CDs cost $19.00 today. But music uses a better scale and because of that Thriller IS still #1 even though it was released 30 years ago.