Friday, June 11, 2004

Blockbusters aren't what they used to be

—Originally published 6.11.04

"Shrek 2" earned $314.5 million in 19 days -- certainly an achievement worth noting. So is, I guess, the $128.4 million taken in by "The Day After Tomorrow" in 10 days, or last weekend's box-office winner, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which hit $93.7 million -- the third-best opening weekend ever.

It's easy to be dazzled by box-office receipts like these. I was surprised by "Shrek 2's" opening weekend of $108 million; the film is funny and well-done, sure, but I drastically underestimated how popular it would be with the general public. I was stunned, however, with its only slight drop over Memorial Day weekend, taking in another $95.6 million.

The last three weekends have the movie industry giddy with joy, but let's not lose our heads here. These are impressive figures, certainly, but we're not talking about my father's summer blockbusters.

When it comes to ranking the biggest hot-weather smashes of all time, numbers do lie.

You think "Shrek 2's" $300 million three-week haul is extraordinary? Try this figure on for size: $800 million.

That's the total for "Jaws" USA TODAY came up with two years ago in a piece that adjusted box-office numbers from previous summer blockbusters into current dollars. If it had been released in the 21st century instead of 1975, Steven Spielberg's $260 million breakout hit would have finished its run with a whopping $800 million.

And even that figure pales in comparison to 1939's "Gone With the Wind," which has an estimated adjusted gross of $1.2 BILLION, according to (The film's actual gross, which included several re-releases, was $198.6 million.)

The rest of Mojo's adjusted top 10 goes like this:

2. "Star Wars" (1977), $1.07 billion

3. "The Sound of Music" (1965), $858.8 million

4. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), $855.4 million

5. "The Ten Commandments" (1956), $789.9 million

6. "Titanic" (1997), $779.1 million (currently the actual box-office champ at $600.7 million)

7. "Jaws" (1975), $772.3 million

8. "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), $748.5 million

9. "The Exorcist" (1973), $666.7 million (scary, huh?)

10. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), $657.3 million

Don't be fooled into thinking something really special happens each time a box-office "record" falls (just wait for the frenzy that follows "Spider-Man 2's" opening weekend receipts when it hits June 30). All-time box-office figures grow less and less meaningful by the weekend; comparing films of the last 15 years with the rest of the lot is like comparing apples to oranges.

Of the 19 films in history that made $300 million or more in their initial runs, only one -- "E.T." -- came out before 1990. Of the 54 films that brought in more than $200 million, just 10 were released prior to 1990.

Much has changed about the way movies are brought to the public during the last 30 years. Compare, for example, "Jaws" with "Shrek 2": "Jaws" opened June 22, 1975, on 409 screens, while the "Shrek" sequel set a record by debuting last month on more than 4,100 screens. The Regal Exchange 20 in Augusta had six showings alone, running every half-hour all day long.

Combine availability with higher ticket prices and an intense, expansive marketing campaign for the Big Green Ogre, and "Shrek 2" was as close to a sure thing as there is in Hollywood. ( "Jaws" and "Shrek 2" do have at least one trait in common, however -- great word-of-mouth.)

This weekend the third installment in the "Harry Potter" series is also a lock to cross the $100 million mark, currently the industry's standard for "blockbuster" status. "Azkaban" will be the 306th film to reach the $100 million plateau; the Spidey sequel will certainly become No. 307. The latter are definitely blockbusters, but when two middling action flicks like "Van Helsing" and "Troy" qualify, too, it's time to up the ante.

Now if "Spider-Man 2" goes on to make a billion dollars, that would really be something.

-- Box office totals and release dates taken from The Internet Movie Database,, and Box Office Mojo,

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