Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Avatar" gross surpasses "Titanic". So what.

As dutifully reported by Michael Ceiply in the New York Times (and many other media outlets), the global box office gross on Avatar has now surpassed that of Titanic. Aside from giving Fox and James Cameron bragging rights, does this matter? And what do they really have to brag about anyway?

Ignoring for a moment the 3-D surcharge on Avatar tickets, let's look at how things have changed from December 1997 to December 2009:
  • The value of the Japanese Yen has gone from $0.00784 to $0.0111 (historical exchange rates per OANDA), an increase of 42%. And the value of the French Franc (since subsumed into the Euro, but you can do the math) has gone from $0.168 to $0.219, a 30% increase. Note that any increase in the price of tickets in Yen, Frans, or Euros would be in addition to the noted exchange rate fluctuations.
So we have the usual problem: even if a movie sold only the same number of tickets in 2009 as an older movie sold in 1997, the total box office gross would likely be up 40-60% (factors such as matinee pricing, child/senior pricing, and so on aside). Given that Avatar is up only1% from the Titanic box office, it has certainly sold far fewer tickets...not much to crow about, is it?

The NYT story says that Fox stated that 72% of worldwide sales came from 3-D screens, which tack a surcharge onto each movie ticket. This further decreases the number of tickets sold, putting Avatar far behind Titanic.

Why do I care about this? I don't. Except that I'm tired of the constant drumbeat every year, as mega-budget movies open and "set new records". The records are in inflated dollars, inflated exchange rates, and (in this case) 3-D surcharges. If the movie studios would report the number of tickets sold, we could track some version of "popularity". The dollar comparisons are nearly meaningless.