Thursday, April 19, 2012

The 10 Most-Watched Movies of All Time

I was reading Time Magazine this week and came across an interesting chart in Richard Corliss’s column, “Truly Titanic” (April 16, Page 66-67). After analyzing what movies had earned the most money (they’re all recent, and not all of them terribly good), he listed “The Real Top 10,” those ten movies that had sold the most tickets in North American box office history. Better even than a Real Dollar chart, it plots just how many times someone paid to see the film.

  1. Gone with the Wind (1939) – 202,000,000
  2. Star Wars (1977) – 178,100,000
  3. The Sound of Music (1965) – 142,200,000
  4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – 141,900,000
  5. The Ten Commandments (1956) – 131,000,000
  6. Titanic (1997) – 128,300,000
  7. Jaws (1975) – 128,100,000
  8. Doctor Zhivago (1965) – 124,100,000
  9. The Exorcist (1973) – 110,600,000
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) – 109,000,000
If you have the data for world-wide most-ticketed movies, please share. But if I’d seen this data before, it had certainly not struck me. Does it strike you?

Effin' RomComs, right?
Firstly, five of these movies feature female leads. Arguably Titanic is split between two leads, the romantic couple, but I’d include it, while Snow White, Exorcist, Sound of Music and Gone with the Wind are inarguable. This rises against the traditional claim that people won’t go see movies with female stars. Every so often we get an exception, like Kill Bill, but they seldom start trends in the mainstream studios. Here, five of the top-attended movies are stories about women. There’s a spark of hope that you could get at some real change from here, even if you then had to acknowledge that one of your modern box-office queens is Twilight.

The second thing that caught me is it features two Horror movies. As a fanatic, it made my chest swell. I would not have guessed The Exorcist would be so big, not that it lacks all the necessary triggers, nor that it lacks a vast tail of cultural infamy. Jaws, on the other hand, I always expect to pop up on these sorts of charts. Ahh, Horror more mainstream than Saw.

The third and perhaps weirdest thing is that Snow White is the Disney flick to hit the list. That was his first feature film. Traditionally name-value creators and franchises build across their lifetimes, or at least crest further in. This goes not just for film (Nolan’s Dark Knight trounces the gross of Memento), novels (Stephen King didn’t even make big bestseller lists until Dead Zone) and videogames (Mass Effect 3 is just the most recent sequel to set the record in sales for its franchise). Walt Disney’s work was spectacular, though, and you might see this as an Avatar-like phenomenon, where people wanted to see 3D for the first time more than they ever wanted to see it again.
This man made some money.

What everyone takes away from this is that despite Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace and Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon grossing over a billion bucks a-piece, fewer people have actually gone to see them than the classics. The present population is bigger, arguably people have more time, and some movies certainly become flashpoints for their year, yet since E.T. in 1982, people have only really gone to theatres to see Titanic in numbers that rival the all-time draws.

Are we split up into niche-films that have polarized most film-going habits? Does this make us sad, because our blockbusters don’t reach as many people? Does that vindicate people who think modern movies stink? Does it spur us content-creators to try harder?

I don’t know, but even though I’m not in film, I’d really love to know what it means to my fellow artists.


  1. One of the major contributors to Snow White's success is that it was the first film in full color. It was also the first full-length animated film. All technical innovations then, as now, were heavily promoted by the studios, so it's not surprising that it drew large initial audiences. After that, its sheer merit kept them coming again and again.

    It's also important to realize that for most of motion-picture history, it was only possible to see a film in the theater. There was no such thing as deciding to catch it on dvd later on. I'm sure that sense of urgency has been a factor in declining audiences for more modern films, not that such details should detract from the merit of the wonderful movies on this list.

    1. I guessed about the gimmick, though I'd forgotten it was actually the first color film in many territories. That is Avatar-levels of spectacle. Really, much greater levels.

      The theatrical exclusivity is a great point, Lillie. Easy for me to forget having grown up walking distance from a video rental spot, not to mention with television.

  2. First of all, I think it's awesome that five of the films have female leads, it's just sad that (besides Titanic) they were all made almost 40 years ago or more.

    Second, I think part of the reason the ticket sales were greater is because there wasn't the flood of movies at the theaters that there are now. At any given time there are twenty-plus movies showing in my city. There were fewer options and the tickets were reasonably priced so people would watch the same movie more than once and you didn't have the instant DVD's back then. Now, I'll often say "I'm not paying $12/person for that, I'll wait three months and watch it home for $2.99."

    1. The competition and diffusion in entertainment are very good points. People can look forward to seeing movies on HBO or cable within a year or two, or buying or renting them. Something I didn't think about last night was all the non-film television programs that offer other entertainment you don't have to hit a theatre for. I know I'd rather watch a new season of Archer or Boondocks than most summer blockbusters or Oscar nominees.

  3. Interesting list for sure. Our grade school class alone could have made up that whole 10 Commandments viewing. We were shown that movie every year for the first six years of school.

    Your captions were hilarious.

    1. Did you actually go to a theatre every year?

      And glad you enjoyed the captions!


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