Chris Hicks: The most popular movie of all time? Sorry, it's not 'Avatar'

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19 2013 3:55 p.m. MST

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh star in the 1939 movie "Gone With the Wind."

Warner Home Video

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What's the most popular movie of all time? Not the best ever made. Not the favorite of modern audiences. Not the one that made the most money.

The most popular. And how do you measure that?

Back in the day, meaning the 1980s through the early ’90s, I was a regular reader of the show-biz trade paper Variety and occasionally wrote columns referencing that publication’s lists of the biggest moneymaking movies of all time vs. the adjusted-for-inflation lists.

The all-time charts that were updated annually came from actual box-office earnings, while the adjusted lists were taken from estimated numbers of tickets sold, whether they each cost 50 cents in the 1930s or $15 today.

In other words, the adjusted list counts the seats in the seats, each person that bought a ticket and saw the movie when it played in a theater.

That’s obviously a better way to level the playing field, especially when movies now add surcharge fees over and above the regular ticket prices for 3-D or IMAX or D-Box showings, inflating profits for Hollywood blockbusters.

Variety is still around but there are also websites that keep track of box-office statistics on a daily basis. On the Box Office Mojo site, for example, the click of a mouse can take you to lists for daily, weekend, weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonal, yearly and all-time appraisals.

And in the all-time category are three subset areas, domestic (the United States and Canada), worldwide and adjusted for inflation. Worldwide earnings are significant because movies today often make more money overseas than in North America.

For example, Tom Cruise’s “Jack Reacher,” which played last Christmas, earned $80 million domestically but the offshore box office climbed to $138 million. That $218 million combined global total was enough to put a sequel on the fast track (announced last week), which would not have happened with just the North American earnings.

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What are the top 10 biggest hits of all time?

The domestic list:

1. “Avatar” (2009)

2. “Titanic” (1997)

3. “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012)

4. “The Dark Knight” (2008)

5. “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (1999)

6. “Star Wars” (1977)

7. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

8. “Shrek 2” (2004)

9. “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

10. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006)

The oldest films here are “Star Wars,” which was, of course, No. 1 for many years, and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” And four of the 21st century films benefit not only from higher ticket prices but also 3-D and/or IMAX surcharges: “Avatar,” “Marvel’s the Avengers,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” That's along with “Titanic’s” earnings from its 3-D reissue in 2012.

Also, note that eight of the top 10 films are episodes of a franchise, either a sequel or the initial film in a series — including “Avatar,” which has three sequels in pre-production (though filming does not begin until 2015). Only “Titanic” and “E.T.” are stand-alone movies.

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