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Math at the movies

Sat., Sept. 20, 2008, midnight

Focus on box office gross hides a film’s true popularity

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s been a summer of big numbers at the movies.

A dozen films – including “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Wall-E” – each have made $100 million or more in ticket sales. “The Dark Knight” has raked in almost $518 million, surpassing “Star Wars” as No. 2 on the list of all-time box office leaders and fueling speculation it could beat 1997’s “Titanic” to become all-time champion.

What studios don’t talk about is how many people actually show up in the theaters – a number Hollywood may see good reason not to track.

In fact, adjusted for a rise in the average ticket price, attendance is down almost 5 percent this year.

Considering that the $7.16 today’s average moviegoer paid to see “The Dark Knight” could have bought three tickets to “Star Wars” in 1977, what do box office grosses say about a movie’s popularity?

Very little, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media by Numbers.

“The general public picks up very quickly that if a movie makes $100 million in 2008 versus 1998 that’s going to be a different animal; that’s not going to be an apples-to-apples comparison,” he said.

Dividing the total gross by the average ticket price, determined by the Motion Picture Association of America, the major studio trade group, Dergarabedian estimated “The Dark Knight” has sold 72.3 million tickets. By comparison, an estimated 169.5 million tickets were sold for “Star Wars,” adjusting for ticket prices in 1977 and again in each of the five years when the movie has been rereleased.

Applying the average ticket price at a film’s release dramatically changes the ranking of the 20 highest-grossing films. “The Dark Knight” becomes No. 8, for instance, slightly ahead of 2004’s “Shrek 2,” which sold an estimated 70.2 million tickets.

Those estimates are admittedly inexact. Dergarabedian said films rated G and PG could be undercounted because they are seen by more children, whose tickets typically cost less than average. A movie’s total revenue and ultimate popularity also depend more these days on factors beyond its domestic theatrical release. Overseas receipts and DVD sales add significantly to the bottom line.


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