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.

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How much was the popularity of cinema affected by newsreels during the war?”

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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.

Changes to the Top 15 film rankings when additional factors are taken into account, such as box office takings, inflation, population, income and attendance Changes to the Top 15 film rankings when additional factors are taken into account, such as box office takings, inflation, population, income and attendance Changes to the Top 15 film rankings when additional factors are taken into account, such as box office takings, inflation, population, income and attendance Changes to the Top 15 film rankings when additional factors are taken into account, such as box office takings, inflation, population, income and attendance

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.

Graph of UK cinema attendances

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.

Ci The price of cinema tickets is far higher than in 1975, when Jaws was released

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.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'd be more interested in a survey of people's favourite films than a statistic of box office takings, as box office takings don't necessarily show popularity. We've all been to a hyped film and not liked it as much as another less hyped film - some films aren't worth owning. Perhaps the data could also be stratified by advents of cinema technology or genre. It seems to me that many of the films in the final 15 could be popular at the box office because they were the the first to do something relatively well (Avatar in 3D - what were the 2D or DVD sales like?; Titanic used a lot of CGI as did LOTR and Harry Potter) or were based on books (LOTR and Harry Potter).

Chris, Bristol

There's never going to be an accurate, definitive answer. What about adding in those shown on TV and how many viewers watched them, including repeats. If that were the case you'd probably get the Carry on Films in the ten most popular. They are re-running them again this week. Most popular is always going to be hard to define, but at least it makes for good "arguments" at work and in the pub.

David Mosley, Chesterfield

The most "popular" British film is Geoffrey Malin's "The Battle of the Somme." By the end of 1918 virtually every adult in Britain had watched the film at least once. Even today more people in Britain have seen clips from this film than have seen clips from any other film.

Peter, Grantown

What if you based your figures on how many people had seen each film? Get a random sample of maybe 10,000 people and ask them to tick whether or not they have seen a certain film, not give an opinion of it, just if they've seen it. Then calculate the number of years it has been possible for them to have seen that film, so if the film was out after they were born, how many years it has been out, if it was before they were born, just their lifetime, and weight their answer based on the time. That will give you a pretty accurate measure of the most popular films.

Emily, Edinburgh

I think there are a limit of things you can try and take into account. Taking into account seat prices (rather than inflation) is useful but beyond that there are just too many factors. Such as: Other popular films out at the time? Introduction of cinema cards? Other media pulling people away from the cinema?

Duncan, Cheadle

I would have thought that popularity should also be measured in the long term. Titanic or Avatar might have been mega popular when released, but will we still be watching them in 20 years' time?

Peter, Newcastle

Either way the only unquestionable conclusion is that Britons have an awful cinema preference.

El Salvador, Brighton

Your question is "Which film is the most popular?" and yet your data has only been based upon cinema receipts, whether adjusted for inflation, population or marketing etc. I understand your wish to base your top fifteen upon solid reliable data, however to produce a more definitive result you should take into consideration the factors of DVD sales and rentals as well. I suspect that this would widen the field to classical epics such as Gone With The Wind, Singin' In The Rain and Doctor Zhivago. I usually go to the cinema about twice a month but I have never seen Avatar, neither has my sister who also likes to go and be entertained regularly. We have both seen Mama Mia at the flicks, rented the DVD and now we each have our own copy (we live 60 miles apart). Does this factor make Mama Mia or Love Actually better films than All Quiet On The Western Front or The Seventh Seal? No, but it does make them more popular, especially in the 21st Century. Of course, next week that could all change, depending upon taste and what is being released.

Charles Brickley, Andover, Hampshire, UK

If you want to get really picky, how about adjusting the list according to how much (inflation-adjusted) money was spent on making these films, the studio's advertising budget for each movie, and whether there were any promotional gifts or merchandise for it at McDonalds?!

Paul, Los Angeles, USA

The fairest way to do this would be to divide the actual UK box office takings by the average ticket price of the time. That would give you bums on seats figures. You could then take that as a % of the population at the time. I would be willing to bet that not one of the films in your top 15 calculation would make the top 20, which would be dominated by films from the 1945-55 era.

Steve, Lisburn, Northern Ireland

Asking people to say whether they have seen a list of films probably wouldn't give you the most reliable stats either - It's been proven before that people will say yes to supposedly worthy films so as not to look uncultured, younger canvasees will say yes to explicitly violent-sounding movies to appear worldy, and then there are those of us who will swear that they've never seen a film before, then get halfway through watching it before the realisation kicks in... Perhaps DVD ownership stats would be a better indicator as Chris says? But then where do you put the obsessives who buy multiple editions of the same film (Star Wars VHS, Special Edition, DVD, Extended Edition, Blu Ray Box Set ad infinitum)? I've bought Blade Runner in 5 different editions myself, but was too young to see it during its original theatrical run...

Karl, Widnes

The other things that aren't mentioned is that most cinemas then were one unit, not twelve screens with interlock capability. Gone with Wind would have been shown in a single unit, with probably 1,200 seats, on two levels as most cinemas were then. The "twins" and "triples" didn't start to arrive until the late 1960'. The Multis in the late 80s. You can manipulate anything with stats, until you get the answer want.

Ian, Wakefield

Adjusting for cinema attendance is dodgy, because good films boost attendance. A great film released during a sate of good films remains a great film. If attendance is low, maybe its because the films on offer are poor. However, the sub-story of the list is that popular cinema is entertainment not art and so maybe films do well when the public crave entertainment, irrespective of merit.

Ian Savell, Warrington, England

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