“The first time I saw it, I started crying when she jumped off the lifeboat, and the second time, I started in the opening credits,” Nick Kopple, a 16-year-old from New York, told The Observer in 1998. The magazine was trying to fathom the secret of the success of “Titanic,” (1997), the most commercially successful film up until then. The film was engraved in the collective memory not only as a motion picture but as a cultural event that helped define the 1990s.
Directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” grossed $1.8 billion, and it took 12 years to dislodge it from its top spot on the blockbusters list. That feat was accomplished once more by Cameron, whose “Avatar” (2009) earned $2.75 billion and became the highest-grossing film ever – a title it still holds. Nine years later, “Avengers: Endgame” looks set to pass it. It’s taken in $2.3 billion in just 18 days.
However, these figures are misleading. They need to be adjusted for inflation, population size, globalization, more expensive 3D screenings and the higher price of tickets altogether. Adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film of all time remains “Gone with the Wind,” almost 80 years after its premiere. The $390 million it earned over the years in a series of rereleases is the equivalent of $3.7 billion in today’s terms. If the box office take of “Avatar” is adjusted for inflation since 2009, it comes in second with $3.2 billion.
The title of highest-grossing film has been awarded to just 10 pictures across 104 years. There are no reliable figures from the early 20th century, but “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is generally considered the first movie blockbuster. Critics slammed it for racism, but it showed millions of Americans that cinema is mass entertainment and art in one package.
“The Birth of a Nation” displayed some of the singular qualities of the next nine top-earning films until “Avatar.” One trait all these films shared was their attraction of an unprecedented mass of viewers. For eight consecutive months after the release of “Gone with the Wind,” tickets were available only in advance sales. Already then, it was starting to be perceived less as a movie and more as an “event” in technicolor.
The similarities between the first two record-holders say something about the audience that turned them into icons of American culture. According to a widely held estimate, one of every two Americans living in the 1940s saw “Gone with the Wind” – many of them more than once. Like “The Birth of a Nation,” it too was based on a bestselling book rife with tragic nostalgia for the American South. And because it was the top-selling book in the United States in 1936-37, media coverage of the production was unparalleled. The casting of Britain’s Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara sparked a patriotic protest. The film, which reached the screen shortly after the start of World War II, was released anew every year during the war and drew viewers to see it over and over.
Sounds of escapism
Of all the films that became temporary top grossers, “The Sound of Music,” which dislodged “Gone with the Wind” in 1965, is probably the only one that was not cinematically innovative. Nor did it enjoy favorable media coverage. The influential critic Pauline Kael savaged it as a “sugar-coated lie,” and The New York Times labeled it “romantic nonsense.” It was an important milestone in the growing disparity between critical taste and public popularity.
“The Sound of Music” tells a long story (just under three hours) gushing with imaginary and unfounded nostalgia for violent, tragic periods. What was it that drew so many viewers in the mid-1960s? The American middle class was at the height its buying power in the pursuit of a culture of leisure, and the world outside was perceived as unstable, with the threat of a nuclear holocaust hanging over the Cold War. Domestically, protests by blacks, women and anti-Vietnam War activists had erupted. It's no surprise that a movie that is both nostalgic and escapist drew such a large audience.
“Gone with the Wind” shot back to the top of the list with its rerelease in 1971, and “The Godfather” also briefly held the record in 1972. But the true turning point came with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. In 1975, the former’s “Jaws” became the highest-grossing picture of all time, and even though it held the title for only two years it created a format for blockbusters that remains a model for filmmakers to this day. Universal Studios provided Spielberg with a huge public relations budget, and for the first time ran teasers on prime time television. No less crucial was the commercial cooperation for tie-in sales of toys, T-shirts and whatnot. Arguably, the marketing of “Jaws” made history in terms of how to create buzz for a movie and contributed mightily to the film’s success.
Spielberg’s thriller also coincided with a period that historians associate with dread and despair, the intermediate stage between the rebellious 1960s and the conservative 1980s. “Jaws” offered viewers a kind of panic attack with which they could connect, only to achieve catharsis at its end.
“Star Wars” (1977), in contrast, relieved anxiety by means of a larger-than-life fantastical saga – escapist, rollicking and innovative. Like “Gone with the Wind,” “Star Wars” continued to generate interest and was rereleased year after year until 1982.
Spielberg’s “E.T.,” which broke the record in 1983 with $619 million, marked a symbolic continuation of “Star Wars.” The resemblance of the two pictures, in contrast to the previous top grossers, doesn’t just involve a preference for science fiction over an imagined past. It’s also a liberation from adapting works from other mediums to the cinema in favor of completely original films.
If “Star Wars” drew inspiration from Lucas’ favorite science fiction works, “E.T.” was based on a fantasy Spielberg had as a boy. The encounter between a genre that was at the height of its influence and old fairy tales turned out to be a movie the whole family wanted to see. Spielberg aimed to take the threatening aliens into our intimate living room, and in a period when America wanted only to enjoy life, “E.T.” provided an allegory about the ability to let go of the past and move on.
Spirit of the time
A decade after “E.T.,” Spielberg broke his own record. “Jurassic Park” brought together all the elements of the earlier top blockbusters: inspiration from a bestselling book; nostalgia for a past so far back that it’s prehistory, yet with a plot that is totally sci-fi; fascinating creatures that provoke the imagination; technological innovation in the form of the first-of-its-kind use of computerized effects and new sound systems in movie theaters; and an aggressive marketing campaign packed with commercial products. The result was to transform dinosaurs into the most exciting creatures of the 1990s and into a childhood memory no less sweet than E.T.
“Titanic,” which became the highest-grossing movie ever in 1998, is the anomaly of the past 50 years. The consensus in contemporary Hollywood is that a picture that in its second week earns 50 percent of what it earned the first week, is a success story. “Titanic,” though, enjoyed a success that kept building: its most profitable day at the box office came not on its premiere but two months later, on Valentine’s Day. And in contrast to the films of Lucas and Spielberg before it, “Titanic” also won the important Oscars.
Besides Cameron’s proven ability to enthrall an audience, the growing interest in fantasy and science fiction with rich visual effects was a key element in the meteoric success of “Avatar.” But innovation again played a crucial role, as Cameron pushed Hollywood into the arms of 3D. Of equal importance is the shift in the Hollywood business model that Cameron fomented. “Titanic” already stood out as a film most of whose profits came from outside the United States. With that in mind, “Avatar” had a worldwide premiere in 106 countries simultaneously, generating a global buzz.
“Avengers: Endgame” now looms as the 11th film that will gain the title of top-grossing picture. Directed by the brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, it’s riding the crest of a cultural wave that is rapidly becoming a tsunami. It, too, expresses the spirit of its period, when superheroes are dominant. Its innovation lies not in its form but in the merging of its business model with the narrative it’s promoting.
With “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel made it clear that this is no mere sequel to the previous 21 films but a high point after which nothing will be the same. The viewer relations that the studio forged across 11 years drew the devoted fans, of course, but also millions of less loyal moviegoers who wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
What all these films have in common, including “Avengers: Endgame,” is that they are a cultural event that transcends the movie theater. All of them became a topic of conversation in every living room. You don’t need to see “Titanic” or “Star Wars” in order to quote passages from them. Whether or not you’ve seen “Avatar,” you have probably formed an opinion about it. It’s impossible to remain indifferent to the world’s most successful movie, especially when it’s new.