Entertainment

Hollywood doesn't adjust the box office for inflation, but if it did, these would be the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time in the US

Key Points
  • "Avengers: Endgame" is now the highest-grossing film of all time, topping "Avatar."
  • There's a reason the film industry doesn't measure the success of modern movies against those of the past — movie ticket inflation isn't an exact science.
  • Notably, the number of options of what movie to see in theaters is so much larger than 50 years ago.
Tim Macpherson | Iconica | Getty Images

As "Avengers: Endgame" has raced its way to and beyond the highest-grossing film record held by "Avatar," questions have arisen about how Hollywood determines what movie is considered the biggest earner.

After all, "Avatar" was released in 2009, so wouldn't a fairer comparison between the 2019-released "Endgame" be adjusted for inflation?

Well, it's not that simple.

There's a reason the film industry doesn't measure the success of modern movies against those of the past — movie ticket inflation isn't an exact science. There are so many factors behind what makes a movie a box office success and those factors have changed since the earliest days of cinema.

For one, consumers have many more choices of what to spend their money on when it comes to entertainment. Even if you exclude sporting events, concerts and at-home entertainment such as streaming services and video games, just the sheer number of options of what movie to see in theaters is so much larger than 50 years ago.

For that reason, a film like "Gone with the Wind" sold more than 200 million tickets over the course of its initial release and additional seven rereleases in the U.S. For comparison, Disney's "Endgame" sold around 94.8 million tickets domestically since its release in April.

The content of movies has also changed drastically. Three-hour dramas about the lives of Southerners during the Civil War wouldn't be as popular in 2019 as they were in, say, 1939. So, it would be difficult to say with certainty that a film that thrived decades ago would still do so today.

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Another major reason that Hollywood doesn't adjust for inflation is the number of foreign markets films are now released in. Analysts would have to dive into each global market to determine the inflation rate in each country, a task that is nearly impossible considering most films are released in more than 100 markets during their initial run.

Still, it's an interesting exercise. So, CNBC contacted Comscore, a media measurement and analytics company, to work out how an adjusted figure could be determined. Paul Dergarabedian and his team devised a method wherein they divided the average ticket price for the year a film was released into the film's gross to determine the estimated number of tickets the film would have sold. Of course, this gets tricky, especially considering so many high-grossing films are rereleased long after their initial debut.

For instance, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was released in theaters in 1937, 1983, 1987 and 1993. So, for these films, Comscore used the average ticket price for each of those different years and divided them into the gross for each rerelease.

To be sure, this isn't a perfect method. Average ticket prices are just that, an average. There's no way to break down the price of IMAX screenings and 3D screenings, or pricing based on region.

Not to mention, ticket prices vary by year. In 2017, the average ticket price was $8.97. In 2018 it was $9.11. This year it is $9.01. So if this adjustment had been done last year, the numbers would have been significantly higher.

That being said, here are the top 10 highest-grossing films if Hollywood did adjust the box office based on modern ticket prices in the U.S:

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Estimated admissions: 109 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $982 million

Since 1937, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" has garnered around $184.9 million at the domestic box office. The film was the first full-length animated feature from Disney.

The film has been rereleased at least three times and made more money from those rereleases than it did from its initial 1937 release.

Comscore determined that since its debut, around 109 million tickets have been sold. At today's average ticket price, the film would have made nearly $1 billion in the U.S.

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" tells the tale of an young princess who has been exiled into the dangerous forest by her wicked stepmother and rescued by seven dwarf miners who make her part of their household.
Disney

9. The Exorcist (1973)

Estimated admissions: 116.5 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.04 billion

One of only six horror films to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture, "The Exorcist" has hauled in more than $232.9 million since its 1973 debut.

The film made the bulk of its money during its initial release. It was brought back to theaters in 2000 and 2010 with extended scenes.

Adjusted for today's ticket prices, "The Exorcist," which sold an estimated 116.5 million tickets, would have made around $1.04 billion.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow performs a exorcism in a scene from the film The Exorcist. The little girl in the bed is actress Linda Blair.
Bettmann | Bettmann | Getty Images

8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Estimated admissions: 124.6 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.12 billion

Released only in 1965, "Doctor Zhivago" earned $112.1 million during its run in theaters and won five Academy Awards.

It's estimated that around 124.6 million tickets were sold for the film. Adjusted for today's ticket prices, that would be around $1.12 billion at the box office.

"Doctor Zhivago" is a film about the life of a Russian physician and poet who, although married to another, falls in love with a political activist's wife and experiences hardship during World War I and then the October Revolution.
Warner Media / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

7. Jaws (1975)

Estimated admissions: 128 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.15 billion

Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" was released in theaters in 1975 and earned $260 million. Like "The Exorcist" it is one of six horror movies to be nominated for best picture. It did not win the award, however.

Comscore estimates that around 128 million tickets were sold during the film's run. Adjusted for today's ticket prices, the film would have earned around $1.15 billion at the box office.

American actors Murray Hamilton, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss on the set of Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Sunset Boulevard | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

6. The Ten Commandments (1956)

Estimated admissions: 131 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.18 billion

The 3-hour-and-40-minute feature debuted in 1956 and earned $65.5 million.

The iconic film, which featured famed actors Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Rameses II, sold an estimated 131 million tickets during its run. Adjusted for today's ticket prices, the film would have earned around $1.18 billion at the U.S. box office.

American actor Charlton Heston on the set of The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Sunset Boulevard | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

5. Titanic (1997)

Estimated admissions: 143.5 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.29 billion

"Titanic" is regarded as one of the best films in industry history and is also one of the highest-grossing. Without adjusting for inflation, James Cameron's masterpiece is the sixth highest-grossing film in the U.S. and the third-highest grossing film globally.

The film has been rereleased twice in addition to its initial run, once in 3D and once to celebrate its 20th anniversary. During those runs, the film earned $658.6 million domestically.

It's estimated that "Titanic" sold around 143.5 million tickets. Adjusted for today's ticket prices, the film would have earned around $1.29 billion at the U.S. box office.

Kate Winslet offers her hand to Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film 'Titanic', 1997.
20th Century-Fox | Getty Images

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Estimated admissions: 147.9 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.33 billion

The four-time Academy Award-winning "E.T." hauled in $434.9 million since it was first released in 1982. Although it was rereleased twice, once in 1985 and once in 2002, the film made the bulk of its earnings during its debut.

"E.T." sold an estimated 147.9 million tickets, which translated to around $1.33 billion in ticket sales using today's average ticket price.

Henry Thomas talking with ET in a scene from the film 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial', 1982.
Archive Photos | Moviepix | Getty Images

3. The Sound of Music (1965)

Estimated admissions: 157.2 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.41 billion

"The Sound of Music" was released twice in theaters. Once was its 1965 debut, where it made the bulk of its $158.8 million haul in the U.S., the other was a 2018 rerelease.

Comscore estimated that the film, which won five Academy Awards, sold around 157.2 million tickets. That is around $1.41 billion when adjusted for today's ticket prices.

Julie Andrews portrays Maria von Trapp in a scene from the popular movie musical of 1965, The Sound of Music.
Bettmann | Bettmann | Getty Images

2. Star Wars (1977)

Estimated admissions: 178.1 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.6 billion

1977's blockbuster "Star Wars" has been reissued at least twice since its initial debut and has earned $460.9 million at the U.S. box office.

In the last four decades, the film has sold an estimated 178.1 million tickets, which equates to around $1.6 billion at the modern domestic box office.

American actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope written, directed and produced by Georges Lucas.
Sunset Boulevard | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

1. Gone with the Wind (1939)

Estimated admissions: 201 million tickets
Estimated adjusted gross: $1.81 billion

"Gone With the Wind" has been rereleased at least seven times since its initial debut in 1939, Comscore said. During that time, it has grossed around $203 million.

However, its popularity has resulted in more than 201 million tickets being sold in the last 80 years. If all of those tickets had been bought today, the film would have grossed around $1.8 billion at the domestic box office.

Actors Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, as adventurer Rhett Butler and heiress Scarlett O'Hara in a scene from the spectacular film Gone with the Wind by Victor Fleming, passionately hug each other. United States, 1939.
Mondadori Portfolio | Mondadori Portfolio | Getty Images