Geek Trivia: Grossest of the gross

What movie has the highest inflation-adjusted U.S. box office gross since the advent of television?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally on July 20, 2004, from the archives.

It is a source of both pride and consternation for hard-core fantasy geeks that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the second most money-making movie in Hollywood history. The pride factor comes in knowing that this film—the ultimate payoff installment in perhaps the most geek-centric movie franchise ever—earned more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, suggesting that geekism has finally gone mainstream.

The consternation comes from the fact that 1997's Titanic, a pseudo-historical romance, which director James Cameron himself referred to as a "$190 million chick flick," is the one film that has outpaced Return of the King on the all-time money list. Even at the box office, geeks come in second.

Of course, those numbers could change at any moment. This year already promises another Spider-Man movie and a third Pirates of the Caribbean installment, and either could potentially bust Titanic's $1.8 billion mark.

Moreover, a film could do it by selling fewer tickets than Return of the King or Titanic. Paging Alan Greenspan: Inflation is to blame.

The price of movie tickets has steadily increased over the decades, and it has increased appreciably even in the nine-plus years since Titanic floated to the top of everyone's box office. This price increase is largely attributable to inflation, which has devalued the U.S. dollars by which we tally movie grosses in Hollywood.

This is why it seems like a new blockbuster breaks some kind of money-making record every summer. It's because theaters and studios are raking in more dollars per ticket every year—not necessarily because they're selling more tickets.

Economists, however, can adjust movie grosses for inflation, giving movie buffs a more reliable perspective on the popularity of a given film by providing a more accurate reflection of tickets sold. If you adjust movie grosses for inflation, the most "popular" movie in U.S. history (global inflation adjustments and worldwide box office receipts being hard to calculate all the way back to the early 1900s) is another chick flick: 1939's Gone with the Wind.

But Scarlett O'Hara and company may have had an unfair advantage as there was no real television presence to compete for entertainment dollars. The second film on the inflation-adjusted list debuted well into the television era, and it's indisputably both a geek favorite and perhaps the most popular movie of all time.


Which movie sports the highest inflation-adjusted U.S. box office gross since the advent of television, which is a rather circumspect way of asking which movie sold the most tickets in American movie theaters since movies started competing with TV?

You can find the answer a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. 1977's Star Wars, the film that launched a phenomenon, is number two on the all-time inflation-adjusted American box office gross list, but it earned that spot during the era of television.

As such, some geeks (yours truly included) could argue that Star Wars (later renamed to include Episode IV: A New Hope) is the most popular film ever made, because it earned its multibillion-dollar franchise profits the hard way. When Star Wars debuted on May 25, 1977, it opened in only 32 theaters, compared to the current blockbuster screenings that start out on several thousand screens in multiplexes nationwide—kind of puts the kibosh on all those opening weekend bragging rights, doesn't it?

And while the Star Wars franchise, which has spawned two sequels and three prequels, can't and probably won't ever grab hold of the all-time collective box office record, it has probably been more efficient (profit per film) than the actual title holder: The James Bond franchise. Agent 007 has had more than 40 years and 20 films to build his more than $3.2 billion (unadjusted) cash stockpile, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace took in more than a quarter of that ($922 million unadjusted) on its own.

And just for good measure, Star Wars is also the only franchise to place four films in the top 25 of both the adjusted and unadjusted domestic gross lists. Any way you slice it, films with the name "Star Wars" attached to them are born money-makers, and nothing this side of Jar Jar Binks can stop it.

And for those who point out that on either list, a romantic epic—Titanic or Gone with the Wind—displaces geek icon Star Wars for top status, I say only this: In the words of Scarlett O'Hara, "Tomorrow is another day."

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...