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The movie industry lives and dies by the box office. At the end of the day, nothing is more important to the studio then how a film fares when it comes to ticket sales. Opinions on which movie is truly the best will run the gamut, but the closest thing we have to an objective measure of success, if not quality, is the amount of money people spent to see any given film.
Of course, the movie industry has changed a great deal over the years. It used to be that almost all of a movie's box office came from North America. Today, international box office can contribute for two-thirds or more of a movie's bottom line. This has largely changed the way the current list of top-grossing films currently looks. Here are the top 10 grossing films worldwide, in non-inflation adjusted box office dollars.
It's a testament to the success of James Cameron that, while the majority of the top 10 are part of major film franchises, the top two movies are not, (although Avatar is about to become part of a new franchise). Avatar has stood at the top of this list since its release 10 years ago. With a total box office number approaching $3 billion, and the fact that no recent blockbuster movie has ever really challenged it, one certainly wonders if and when another film might ever make this much money.
When Avatar became the highest grossing movie ever, it did so by overcoming another James Cameron film, Titanic. While there's over $600 million separating these two films, the success of Avatar is really an example of the way the international box office has become incredibly powerful. Avatar only out grossed Titanic by $100 million at home; the rest came from overseas, largely China.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens became only the third film to break the $2 billion mark when it was released in 2015. The movie is actually the highest grossing movie ever domestically. However, the franchise actually doesn't quite do as well overseas, especially in China.
The real winner on the top 10 list, of course, is Marvel Studios. All three Avengers movies that have been released thus far make the top 10. The three films alone have brought in $5 billion around the world. When you add in the additional $1.3 billion that Black Panther has made, Marvel owns this list. It seems quite likely that the fourth Avengers movie, Endgame, will be on this list before long.
The rest of the top 10 is made up of a few other major franchise entries. It looks like the Fast and Furious franchise may have peaked with Furious 7, as part eight wasn't able to match the previous film's success. The same is true of Jurassic World. Audiences were clearly ready to see the return of this franchise based on that movie's success, but Fallen Kingdom didn't come anywhere close to matching those box office numbers. By comparison, the Harry Potter franchise ended on a high note, with Deathly Hallows - Part 2 becoming the highest-grossing entry in the series.
Of course, the truth is that all of those numbers are a bit deceiving. Due to the ever increasing pressure of inflation, a movie released today will always gross more compared to films from even a few years ago, never mind the movies of decades past. Adjusting box office totals for inflation, especially on a global scale, is a tricky business, as you also need to adjust for inflation, as well as exchange rates, between multiple countries over decades. The task has been undertaken before, but it's actually possible to come up with slightly different numbers. Here is one estimate for the top 10 grossing films where inflation has been taken into consideration. As you can see, it's a significantly different list.
The numbers here are largely irrelevant because they all depend on which year's inflation level you take as you standard. It's the order that matters. While Avatar and Titanic are still in the top ten, and still pretty high up there, they both make way for the truly undisputed king of the box office, 1939's Gone with the Wind.
The film came out at a time when the concept of the blockbuster film didn't exist, and yet, that's exactly what it was. Although it does need to be said that the film's box office total represents multiple theatrical releases over the course of decades. In the days before VHS and DVD, movies were routinely re-released in theaters, which is where several films on this list made a lot of their money.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the star of the unadjusted list, when inflation is taken into account, Star Wars is the big winner. The original film, as well as The Force Awakens, both make the top 10, though the return of the Star Wars franchise just barely gets there. A New Hope made over $200 million during its original theatrical run that lasted basically a full year. Today, $200 million is still considered a solid theatrical take. When you adjust that number for inflation, and then add in what the film has done during re-releases, it's no shock you're talking about one of the highest grossing movies ever made.
Steven Spielberg may not have quite the success that James Cameron has on this list, but he's the only other director with two films in the top 10. Jaws is viewed by many as the film that invented the concept of the summer blockbuster. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most family-friendly and largely accessible movies on the list. It's the sort of movie that sees its box office increase as entire families show up at the theater and buy tickets.
The other three films on the list are some of the most well-loved classics of all-time, which, like Gone with the Wind, have benefited from multiple theatrical releases over the years. The Ten Commandments is a biblical epic, which was largely the comic book superhero movie of the era. Doctor Zhivago is both an epic costume drama and a beautiful romance. The Sound of Music is the musical that it seems everybody is familiar with, and the 1965 movie is a big part of the reason why.
While the inflation adjusted numbers might help level the playing field, that shouldn't take anything away from any of the movies on these lists. They're the biggest movies ever made, according to the people willing to spend their hard earned money to see them.