E.T. v Avatar v Titanic
What is the most popular film? Avatar has grossed the most money in the UK, but what happens when you adjust the box-office rankings to allow for inflation, population and changing habits, asks Michael Blastland in his regular Go Figure column.
The most popular film in the UK, ever?
Easy. It's Avatar, setting box-office records by the month.
To which you may roll your eyes and say: "Yeah, yeah, but what about rising ticket prices?"
As cinema admission has become more expensive, so films are bound to take more money through the tills. Ching, ching!
So let's talk about ticket prices.
The Film Council has produced a top 15 by box office receipts, and another adjusted for inflation. Does Avatar still rule? Read on and find out.
But there's more to think about, or there should be. Is it a surprise that the nation spent more to see Mamma Mia (released 2008) than Jaws (1975) when there were five million more people in the UK? You don't have to answer that question. But you see the principle. We need to adjust for population change.
How much was the popularity of cinema affected by newsreels during the war?”
And what about people having more cash than in 1975? Does that mean they are able to visit the cinema more often? And should we also adjust for national income per head? OK, we can do that, too.
All can now be revealed. Here is the Go-Figure Top-15 Film Shuffler to show the supposed Top 15, the real Top 15, the really-real Top 15, arguably the most realistic really-real Top 15, and more.Continue reading the main story
The big risers on the new lists are E.T., Jaws and Star Wars, with Jurassic Park also up there. The big fall is Mamma Mia.
The final list is perhaps the most interesting. It is an attempt to say "How much would this film have taken at the box office if cinema-going habits then were the same overall as now?"
So it tries to take account of trends generally and is another way of adjusting for income and population, but also other factors: how much was the popularity of cinema affected by newsreels during the war, the lack of other cheap entertainment, the advent of videos, DVDs or multiplexes? The graph below illustrates the highs and lows of the silver screen's popularity.
On this measure, E.T. beats Avatar and Titanic because cinema-going hit rock-bottom in the early 1980s. If you imagine that it was as healthy then as it is now and all films benefited proportionately, E.T. storms ahead.
There are oodles of problems with this - as with them all. But how would you do it? Let us know, using the form at the bottom of the page.
I'm resisting the temptation to make the figures for each film taste-adjusted, allowing for the fact that some were unequivocally so rubbish that they have to be treated as a statistical anomaly, or such genius as to demand inclusion.
With this adjustment, the best film ever is undoubtedly Alvin and the Chipmunks. No seriously, a classic. Oh, all right then, how about Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless? Whaddyamean pretentious?
Simple attendance numbers for individual films are, surprisingly, not available in the Film Council stats. The British Film Institute once estimated attendance for individual films back to the war, and placed Gone with the Wind on top with 35 million.
Assume £5 a ticket, multiply by 1.25 for rough population growth and, based on the BFI estimate, Gone with the Wind would take about £220 million, streets ahead of anything in our charts. But is that a valid comparison?
The BFI list also puts Star Wars ahead of Jaws, unlike my calculations. The full BFI bums-on-seats chart was compiled in 2004, before Avatar's release.
A quick note on sources: The first two lists use numbers from the UK Film Council's bumper online film stats yearbook. They contain an oddity. Avatar's unadjusted number (£83.2m) comes out at an inflation-adjusted £91.4m, even though it was released last year. The Film Council counted only until February for the unadjusted number, but added sales since then for the inflation-adjusted number. Not sure why. But since all the figures in the first two lists are from the Film Council, I decided not to change them.
For the income-adjusted list, I've assumed that doubling incomes - for which I've used real GDP per head - equals a 10% increase in cinema-going, all else being equal. This ratio is a stab in the dark and other assumptions could be valid.
Another problem is that there's little good data before the 1970s. We also only list films that appear in the two top 20s put together by the Film Council. Some others since 1970 might have crept in on the subsequent adjustments - though not many and not far - but they're not shown.