007’s double-edged sword: box office receipts vs. tickets sold

The news that Harry Potter has passed James Bond for the most successful movies series, can stir reactions from Bond fans (including HMSS’s own staff) that such a comparison is unfair. The notion is that if you go by number of tickets sold, that’s a much fairer comparison that using unadjusted box-office gross.

If you look at the unadjusted figures, the highest grossing 007 film is 2006’s Casino Royale with more than $596 million worldwide. In terms of U.S. gross, the No. 1 Bond film is 2008’s Quantum of Solace, according to by http://www.by-thenumbers.com, with more than $169 million out of a worldwide gross of $576 million.

However, there are lists that based what grosses would be if you adjusted for inflation of ticket prices. According to a list compiled at the Box Office Mojo Web site, Thunderball’s $63.6 million U.S. gross alone would be equal to almost $595 million. There have been other estimates that Thunderball’s worldwide gross would equal about $1 billion today.

Others say not so fast. The Hot Blog, in a January posting argued the “ticket sold” argument isn’t the strongest, that studios don’t care about the number of tickets sold, just about revenue, that they’re trying to find new ways (and with 3D a revamped old one) of generating more revenue and that it’s hard to compare movies of different eras. A sampling:

But the adjusted grossers would have you believe that properly read, Thunderball would have grossed more than The Dark Knight last year and would be fighting Avatar for the #2 slot al-time worldwide now at more than $1.2 billion, as Bond always plays great in the international market.

Bond is a very valuable franchise. But the best it has ever grossed with one film is still under $600 million worldwide. I’m not saying that $64 million for Thunderball in 1965 wasn’t extraordinary. But was it of significance like a billion dollar-plus movie is now?

Here’s something else that the Hot Blog post doesn’t mention. If you embrace the tickets sold/adjusted for inflation argument, it’s doubtful any new Bond movie would ever surpass Thunderball,. Or put another way, the series’ best financial days are behind it. Based on Box Office Mojo’s estimates, Thunderball‘s grosses were more than 15 times its $9 million production cost. Quantum of Solace, the most recent 007 film? About two-and-a-half times, thanks in part to an estimated production budget of $230 million.

No matter which side one takes, it’s a double-edged sword for 007, and a debate whose answers are murky.

4 Responses

  1. Hold on a minute. On one hand it’s argued here that “the series’ best financial days are behind it”, on the other it is stated that CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE are the highest grossing films of the series worldwide and US-wide respectively.

    Which is it?

    Also, taking into account the tickets sold/adjusted for inflation argument, it’s doubtful *any* movie would ever surpass Thunderball.

    The obviously unbiased “expertise” of the The Hot Blog states “What studios are most concerned about is maximizing revenue.” Indeed. But to directly compare box office from today with something from 1996 or 1986 or 1976 or 1966 is an exercise in silliness.

    But if it makes those at THB feel better, have at it.

    Tom Zielinski

  2. Another thing that gets forgotten frequently in these debates is that there have been massive changes in the way that people watch movies over the last fifty years. The revenue generated by a film in the early 1960s might well have been composed largely of the money received from ticket sales, but these days the pattern is very different indeed. The massive growth of home entertainment means that movies can have an afterlife way beyond their cinema release. Indeed, in some cases a cinema release acts almost as a trailer for the film’s eventual release on DVD, which is where the *real* money can be made. To choose just one example, the ‘Austin Powers’ franchise would never have lasted beyond the first instalment based on ticket sales alone: it was the first film’s success on home video, not at the box office, which led to the sequels.

    Edward Jay Epstein has written some excellent and very sceptical pieces about the web’s obsession with box office grosses and how they no longer tell anything more than part of the story. It’s well worth seeking his stuff out to get a more balanced picture of how modern Hollywood economics works.

    The bottom line is that Bond at present is financially successful by any reasonable standard, and any attempt to draw comparisons between franchises based on simple box office gross figures is not just silly but semi-informed and hugely over-simplistic.

  3. @Tom: the point of the post is to show how murky this debate is. Put another way, if you go with unadjusted gross, you can argue the Bond series just had its two most successful entries BUT the series as a whole just lost its No. 1 all-time title.

    If you go with ticket sales/adjusted, you can (very reasonably) argue that the early Bond films were enormous successes on a scale that match or exceed the Harry Potters, Dark Knights, etc. BUT going down that path also leaves open the argument that the series’ best days are behind it. That’s why it’s a double edged sword EITHER way you go, hence the conclusion of the post.

    @Phil, yes, box office gross alone probably isn’t the best comparison. Re: different ways people see movies: Thunderball’s box office grosses are fattened up by several theatrical re-releases — you didn’t have home video in that day. Go further back to the days of Gone With the Wind or Sgt. York, movies competed against radio and that was about it. That’s also a reason why comparing financial success for movies of different eras is a tricky matter.

  4. […] ago, Harry Potter films had passed 007 for worldwide ticket sales. Many 007 fans cried foul, saying such comparisons were unfair. Today, after Skyfall has reached No. 8 all time in adjusted ticket sales? You don’t hear that […]

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