B.O. tallies obscure real audience impact

“Avatar” is quickly making its way into the top 10 films on the alltime domestic grosses list. Overseas, James Cameron’s pic is doing even better, and has landed at No. 2, just behind Cameron’s own “Titanic.”

But despite the record sums the box office has tallied in the past year, Hollywood films, for the most part, actually drew their largest audiences decades ago: The U.S. studios report results in gross box office dollars instead of the number of tickets sold, the method used in many other countries.

Inflation-adjusted numbers, as found at boxofficemojo.com, are calculated by dividing each year’s MPAA-reported average ticket price by the film’s gross. Adjusted-for-inflation numbers aren’t exact, due to variations in how box office was reported over the years, but they’re close enough to get an idea of how much bigger movie auds were before the advent of television, homevideo and the Internet.

It’s unlikely that any current film will be able to reach the mark of having sold more than 130 million tickets the way the first five films on the adjusted-for-inflation list have. Those are “Gone With the Wind,” “Star Wars,” “The Sound of Music,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Ten Commandments.”

“Titanic,” at No. 6, is the highest-ranking film from the past 20 years. With 3D ticket prices driving average ticket prices even higher, “Avatar” will be lucky to crack the top 100 all-time film chart, adjusted for inflation. The only film from the last decade to make the top 100 was “The Dark Knight,” which sold about 74 million tickets.

In France, the list on government media site CNC.fr shows that while “Titanic” sold the most tickets ever, Sergio Leone’s 1969 “Once Upon a Time in the West” lands high up at No. 5 as one of the most popular films ever in that country.

Though it might seem more logical to tally hits by the number of tickets sold, don’t expect studios to change their B.O. reporting practices anytime soon.

“It’s historic,” says Warner Bros. exec VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein, “We look at the total dollar amount, that gives us some continuity.”

There’s also the matter of bragging rights hinging on ever-bigger B.O. numbers, based on inevitably higher movie ticket prices.

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