Avengers  analyzed

What does Endgame’s money really mean?

Image copyright Walt Disney Pictures / Marvel Studios

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, May 19, 2019

Avengers: Endgame has topped $2.6 billion globally and $770 million domestically in less than a month. This means it will probably top Avatar as the highest-grossing movie worldwide, though it is projected to fall a bit short of the American record, which belongs to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

These totals are impressive, especially considering the speed at which they have been attained. But more important than the numbers are why and how they were reached, and what the money really means when compared with the adjusted-for-inflation totals of history’s other great blockbusters.

Endgame’s speedy success is due primarily to seven factors:

  1. Simultaneous global release. In a rare move, the film was released in almost all international markets at the same time. This rollout strategy, which could become the model for future blockbusters, has allowed Endgame’s numbers to accumulate at an unprecedented rate, further fueling our “must see it now” culture and tricking moviegoers into thinking the numbers are better than they really are when compared with past films, which were unable to make money as quickly.
  2. The growth of China. The Chinese market has continued to expand and will eventually eclipse the United States, and Endgame is arguably the first film to truly demonstrate the power of that growing market.
  3. Good reviews. Positive responses from critics help. Ever wonder how much more money Star Wars: The Phantom Menace could have made had it actually been a good film?
  4. The finale. Endgame is uniquely positioned as the climax of a massively popular, 22-movie series. In this respect, and when combined with the other factors on this list, the movie represents a perfect moneymaking storm.
  5. The cliffhanger. The old serial technique of ending the previous edition with a cliffhanger should not be underestimated. It has coaxed even the casual fans of the previous film (Infinity War) to see Endgame.
  6. The rise of the comic book superhero. Our culture is addicted to this genre, and our addiction is Endgame’s profit.
  7. Lastly, Endgame was released at a good time to maximize its impact: just before the summer rush. Indeed, it has taken three weeks for another film (the latest John Wick action flick) to eclipse it at the American weekend box office.

But let’s put Endgame’s success in perspective.

Even if the movie passes Avatar to become the top-grossing film of all time globally, it would still be behind Avatar when adjusted for inflation. Because that latter film was released 10 years ago, its gross now stands at $3.27 billion when adjusted to 2019 ticket prices, according to Wikipedia. And the all-time champ, Gone with the Wind, clocks in at $3.73 billion, a number well out of Endgame’s reach.

Endgame is even less likely to become the top domestic film of all time adjusted for inflation thanks to the insurmountable totals of the two most popular movies ever released in the United States: Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars. Adjusted for inflation, the former has taken in $1.82 billion while George Lucas’s 1977 space epic has earned $1.60 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. To add further perspective to Endgame’s numbers, the movie is likely to end up as the 12th-highest-grossing picture domestically when adjusted for inflation, stuck between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and 101 Dalmatians.

But I know what you’re saying: Endgame has earned its totals in only a month while it took multiple releases over many years for most of those other films to earn theirs. (And Endgame will not be able to enjoy those re-releases thanks to streaming content, DVD, Blu-ray and, of course, television, which was rolled out in the United States six years after GWTW’s release.)

However, other factors somewhat mitigate the box-office advantages of Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars. First, the population of the United States in 1940 (the first year of wide release for Gone with the Wind) was just 132 million, compared to 220 million in 1977 and 328 million today. So the potential audience for GWTW was just 40 percent of Endgame’s, while the original Star Wars’ potential audience was 67 percent.

But people in the 1940s had little to do other than go to the movies, right? Wrong. The idea that audiences in the first half of the 20th century had nothing better to do than fill cinemas is a myth. As society and technology change, so do recreational habits, and the motion picture industry certainly had its fair share of competition from amusements that are practically extinct today: the circus, traveling fairs and carnivals, radio and a whole host of family-based, people-centric, hands-on activities that have faded away thanks to our mobile-phone and web-based world.

Nevertheless, the per-capita movie-going audience was much bigger in the 1940s than it is today. According to Business Insider, an astonishing 46 percent of Americans went out to see a movie each week in 1940. By the mid-1960s, that number had dropped to about 10 percent, and it remained at that level into the 20th century. Though the study’s numbers end at 2002, it seems likely that per-capita attendance has either held steady or declined even more in the last decade and a half.

It’s important to remember, though, that 1940s audiences weren’t going to the cinema just to see the A film. With B-movies, shorts, cartoons and trailers to enjoy, many attendees came and went without even seeing the main feature. And before television, a movie theater was the main source of visual news, an all-important part of life during World War II (though the European movie market declined dramatically during the war). And even without all of that content, the air-conditioned movie palace was simply a great place to hang out on hot days. (Interestingly, though, summer was never a big time for movie releases until Jaws invented the summer blockbuster in 1975.)

Because these types of comparisons between today’s box-office grosses and the profits of yesteryear are so complicated, why not revamp the way we judge the success of a movie? After all, the music industry doesn’t report how much money a song or album has made. If it did, the achievements of the Beatles and Elvis would suddenly seem less impressive when judged against today’s highest-priced offerings. Similarly, The New York Times bestseller list doesn’t rank profits. No, both the music and publishing industries rank their most successful titles by UNITS sold. So why can’t Hollywood do the same, substituting ticket sales for money made?

Simply put, it’s got a good promotional thing going, and it knows it. And the media have bought into this little bamboozle too, all too eager to promote its clickbait by proclaiming the latest movie the “biggest,” “greatest” and “most successful” of all time. This misleading reporting belies the truth about a movie’s success and further fuels a cinematic peer pressure that practically forces audiences to see a flick immediately or risk discovering spoilers on social media: a phenomenon that, of course, did not exist in 1939 or 1977.

Nope, back then the movie industry was designed for slow roll-outs, with “roadshow” versions often preceding a lengthy wide release. But today it’s about speed, gluttony and snake-oil salesmanship. We’re prisoners of our hungry world. More, more, more. Now, now, now. And Endgame’s three-hour ADD, CGI spectacular satisfies our cinematic hunger. Until the next big thing comes along …

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