Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao in James Cameron’s Avatar (top); John Guillermin’s The Towering Inferno starred Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, and Robert Wagner (bottom)

AVATAR vs. TITANIC: International Box Office

If 3D/IMAX surcharges are factored in, Avatar would fall behind many more movies on Box Office Mojo’s inflation-adjusted chart, which is supposed to better reflect the number of tickets a movie has sold. as I’ve explained in the comments section of a previous Avatar post, the 3D/IMAX premiums can add somewhere between 25-30 and 40 percent to Avatar’s grosses. the vast majority of movies, including most recent releases, don’t have that sort of advantage — certainly not to Avatar’s extent, as 80% of its domestic gross and about two-thirds of its international gross have come from 3D and 3D/IMAX screenings. [Please see a personal addendum below.]

Even if you opt for the lower end of the scale and subtract only 25% from Avatar’s domestic earnings (a worldwide inflation-adjusted chart is unavailable) — in order to better estimate where James Cameron’s sci-fi adventure would rank in number of tickets sold — the film would have earned to date (Feb. 25) $518.7 million, placing it at #37, slightly ahead of Macauley Culkin’s 1991 comedy Home Alone ($515.4m) and several million behind Roland Emmerich’s 1996 cartoonish sci-fier Independence Day ($527.1m).

If you opt for a mid-level percentage, or about 33%, Avatar’s “2D-equivalent box-office take” would be $461.1m, which would place it at #53 in number of tickets sold, slightly ahead of Sam Raimi’s 2004 superhero flick Spider-Man 2 ($457.8m) and several million behind John Guillermin’s 1974 all-star disaster melodrama The Towering Inferno ($467m).

Once again, bear in mind that those are approximations based on “average” ticket prices provided by the National Association of Theater Owners. (Box Office Mojo has come up with its own estimated average — $7.61 — for 2010.) An accurate calculation of a film’s popularity at the box office — as in, the number of tickets sold and its ratio to the population size at the time of the movie’s release — would be based on where the movie made most of its money, e.g., a top-dollar new York house, thousands of cheaper small-town theaters, 3D/IMAX screenings, or kiddie matinees.

Avatar’s ticket prices, for instance, cost much more than the purported $7.61 “average” for 2010. in fact, most releases — whether new or old — that earn(ed) most of their revenues in major urban centers are at an advantage on those charts, whereas movies that did well in smaller towns or those made for children (lower prices for kids, matinees) are at a disadvantage.

It’s also worth remembering that population increases, changes in movie-going demographics, changes in movie distribution (movies didn’t open at 3,000 — – or even 300 — screens until the mid-70s), and the growth of entertainment alternatives (home video, cable television, pay-per-view options) should all be taken into consideration when comparing the box-office success of movies from different eras. and that many of the movies found on Box Office Mojo’s inflation-adjusted chart had one or more rereleases throughout the years.

The effect of piracy on a movie’s box-office performance remains highly debatable. It all depends on the type of movie (would you rather watch Avatar on your computer screen or at a 3D movie house?), the quality of the pirated material (high-def. copies vs. crummy reproductions), and where the copying is taking place (Beverly Hills or Lagos or Kinshasa, where most people who’d buy 50-cent copies of Hollywood flicks wouldn’t be able to afford going to the movies, anyhow).

And finally, Avatar is generating quite a bit of money and will probably keep doing so in the next few weeks. More “inflation-adjusted” updates will be posted in the near future.

Addendum: I’ve been accused of coming up with those figures because I’m somehow anti-Avatar. I’m not. Avatar isn’t my favorite movie of the year and I wouldn’t call it a great film, but I found it a memorable experience nevertheless. I am anti-bullshit, however. and I like to keep things in perspective as much as possible, even considering all the variables involved when comparing something as ephemeral as a movie’s “popularity.” That’s the only reason I’ve been posting those “inflation-adjusted” articles about Avatar. It could’ve been any other movie that studio flacks — and journalists who should know better — claim is the Biggest Box-Office Hit Ever.

As an aside, I may be checking out Avatar a second time before it disappears from 3D houses. in fact, I want to catch it at an IMAX screening.

Photo: Avatar (WETA / 20th Century Fox);


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