Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On how many screens did Star Wars appear when it opened on Memorial Day, 1977? (Truly Trivial)

Iron Man 2 enjoyed the fifth best opening weekend in US box office history earlier this month when it raked in $128 million according to Box Office Mojo. The all-time champ (for the moment) in domestic opening weekend sales is The Dark Knight, which barely beat out Spider-Man 3's $151 million with it's own $158 million. Clearly, The Dark Knight had the best opening weekend ever, right?

Not so much.

The most successful movie of all time is Gone With The Wind, even though it ranks 103rd on the list of all-time US movie money-earners. That's because you're confusing gross income with tickets sold. Tickets are way more expensive now than they were in 1939 (or in 1999, for that matter). When you adjust for inflation, Gone With The Wind earned $1.6 billion in the US alone. We don't have opening weekend stats from 1939, but you can bet that Scarlett O'Hara had more to brag about than Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.

All of those numbers go to prove that the phrase "biggest opening weekend ever" is basically useless, suitable only for empty-headed bragging rights..

No fair, you say, Gone With The Wind didn't have to compete with TV. That was a different era. We agree. But the second-place movie on the inflation-adjusted list is Star Wars at $1.4 billion, and I'm pretty sure there was lots of (crappy) TV in 1977. More to the point, Star Wars didn't enjoy one of the huge advantages all these pointless recording-breaking modern movies use to inflate their numbers: wide releases.

Iron Man 2 enjoyed the widest release in movie history, opening on 4,380 screens. The Dark Knight was second, opening on 4,366 screens. Star Wars originally opened in limited release on a number of screens that was a mere fraction of Batman's or Iron Man's opening screencount.

On how many screens did Star Wars appear when it opened on Memorial Day, 1977?

Star Wars opened on a whopping 32 screens on May 25, 1977. If you double that number and then square it you get 4,096, which is still more than 250 screens less than the number of theaters that gave Dark Knight or Iron Man 2 their vaunted opening weekend numbers. Even Avatar, which was limited by the number of theaters that could support its 3D viewing requirements, opened on 3,452 screens.

Star Wars earned $1.5 million its opening weekend, which still earned it the number one ranking despite its limited release. (Star Wars actually appeared on 43 screens during its opening weekend, as theater owners almost immediately added Saturday, Sunday and Monday showings to deal with the unexpected and extraordinary demand.) When Star Wars finally earned wide release on July 15, 1977, it still only appeared on 757 screens. It nonetheless took home the #1 weekend gross for a second time, earning $6.8 million the weekend it went wide. (Wide, in this case, being less than a sixth the number of screens that Iron Man 2 or The Dark Knight enjoyed.)

If you're curious, Star Wars earned an inflation-adjusted (2009 dollars) $54 million on its limited opening weekend, and $238 million in its wide opening weekend. The latter figure is $80 million more than The Dark Knight earned on six times as many screens, and Star Wars did it after already being out in limited release for almost two months.

Any way you slice it, Star Wars not only invented the summer blockbuster, it still outshines almost every pretender who has ever tried to replicate its success. That's not just serious earning power, that's a timeless example of the truly trivial.