What's the most successful movie of all time? If you put that question to someone who reads Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, they'd probably answer Avatar, James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster about a paraplegic Marine dispatched to a faraway moon, which grossed $760 million at the domestic box office (and $2.78 billion globally).
That's true, or true enough, but only in the limited sense that Avatar earned the most dollars in theaters. The box office list with Avatar at the top, which you can see here, is not adjusted for ticket-price inflation. In 1963, a ticket cost $0.85 on average; in 2013 it was $8.13.
Adjusting for inflation, the highest-grossing movie ever, domestically, is Gone With the Wind, which grossed $1.6 billion in 2014 dollars and sold roughly 200 million tickets. In comparison, Avatar sold a paltry 97 million tickets.
So is Gone With the Wind the real answer? The inflation-adjusted list isn't a perfect basis for comparison across time, either, in part because some of the older films owe their extravagant ticket sales to multiple releases. Gone With the Wind appeared in theaters on at least nine occasions; Avatar only twice. On a long enough timeline, with enough re-releases, it's possible that Avatar could catch up.
Despite that flaw, though, the adjusted list tells a more reliable story about moviegoing over the last several decades.
The unadjusted list, with Avatar at the top of the heap, suggests a relentlessly positive trajectory, with Hollywood regularly outdoing itself — churning out one blockbuster after another, each more appealing to mass audiences than the last. Six of the top 10 movies on the list were released after the turn of the millennium. James Cameron secured the No. 1 position with 1997's Titanic, then bested himself with Avatar.
The inflation-adjusted list, on the other hand, seems almost frozen — or trapped in amber, to borrow a metaphor from Jurassic Park (No. 16 on the adjusted list, and No. 17 on the unadjusted list).
Not only is the No. 1 movie 75 years old, but there are no post-2000 films in the top 10, and only one in the top 15 (Avatar again). Adjusting for inflation, Cameron did not outdo himself with Avatar; he peaked with Titanic, which sits at No. 5. If you plotted his adjusted performance on a graph, you'd say he was in decline.
The adjusted list exposes the obvious changes in viewing culture that the unadjusted version conceals. More people went to see 1965's The Sound of Music (No. 3) than 2012's The Avengers (No. 27). When it was released, the only way to see The Sound of Music was in theaters. You could see The Avengers online or on DVD, on your television, laptop, or phone. The theater-going audience and the movie-watching audience were once synonymous. They're not anymore.
Taking the long view, Avatar has never been the top seed in box-office rankings. And now that theaters are just one of several options available to moviegoers, it seems unlikely that an upstart will ever manage to unseat the true champion, Gone With the Wind. That doesn't mean no film will ever be as popular, but the popularity war will be fought on an entirely different battlefield. The box-office competition was won a long time ago, and is effectively closed.