So is it about to become the best-selling movie in the history of the world or what? Posting on The Atlantic's business page, Derek Thompson notes that the worldwide gross is approaching $1.85 billion, which would indeed be a record. But along comes that pesky "adjusted for inflation" factor. Yeah, it's dumb economics stuff, virtually ignored by the entertainment press, but it does make a difference. When "Gone with the Wind" opened in 1939, the average ticket price was 23 cents. At the Landmark, it costs $15.50 to see "Avatar." Factoring inflation, the domestic box office would rank below "Grease." Of course, this being the dismal science, there are some problems with simply using the inflation index as an all-purpose arbiter.
First, by treating all ticket sales as equal, we overestimate the grosses of movies where a big proportion of the sales were to children, whose tickets cost less. That's one reason why movies like 101 Dalmatians, Fantasia and The Lion King rank so high. Another problem with the list is that the cost of a movie ticket has actually grown faster than the consumer price index, according to Pinkus-Roth. That means that a ticket to Gone in 60 Seconds (2000) cost more in relation to other items than a ticket to Gone with the Wind (1939). And those are just two of the most serious issues.
So "Avatar" is doing really, really well - just not quite as well as the press releases would have you believe.