Here Comes Summer – and as it draws to a close, one thing can be guaranteed: some Hollywood puke will declare “Prequel 4: The Spinoff” to be The Most Successful Movie Of All Time.
But surely, I hear you cry, “SFX: The Remake” CAN’T have beaten off (so to speak) classics like Titanic, the original Star Wars, Jaws, The Sound Of Music, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, Sun Valley Serenade – and of course, the inevitable Gone With The Wind? Can it?
Er – no. Oh sure, the GROSS of “No-Brain Actioner: The Sequel” may be the highest ever – but adjusted for inflation, it will not even be in the top twenty. It was just a cynical Hollywood ploy to extract a bit more juice from the biggest of its summer blockbusters, as it began to wane.
Okay – so what ARE the top twenty greatest films ever made?
Well, for the answer to that one, we need to examine the whole business of cinema-going. And we need to start with Hollywood’s Golden Age – the Thirties and Forties.
For in those days, Americans only had three options for an evening’s entertainment. One: join the Ku Klux Klan – two: spend a night in, listening to the radio – or three: go to the mooovies (and if you were British, the last two had to suffice).
The radio option gave you an evening of drama, music, news, panel shows, variety – even ventriloquists. There was just one problem – no pictures.
For those, you went to any one of half-a-dozen cinemas, which offered an entire programme (program, in the U.S.) of goodies. TWO movies – an “A” and a “B” – a short, a cartoon, a news-reel, a serial and a bunch of ads and trailers. Four hours in all – with a break.
And the cinemas would have between 500 and 2,000 seats, with full houses on most nights – and three changes of programmes a week. Cinema RULED.
But then, in the Fifties, along came Television. It soon realised it could offer everything that radio AND the movies did – plus more.
So Hollywood fought BACK – with more movies in COLOUR (color) and stereo, hi-def, widescreen, plus 3-D and various other gimmicks. While television was stuck with a small, square, black-and-white screen – and mono sound. For a while, it was business as usual.
But then television began to catch up – first, with colour, then stereo sound, while the screens got progressively bigger and wider. Today, even a poor person can afford an HD 16:9, 60″ screen, connected to a 250W 6-channel sound system. Why go out?
Thus today, cinema is an EVENT. The cineplexes and multiplexes feature just ONE movie – preceded by a few ads and trailers. And they only boast three or four hundred seats, which are filled when movies open – but after that first weekend, the numbers dwindle to just a few dozen.
And then there is the FINANCIAL dynamic. In the Golden Age, movies were CHEAP – being almost completely made in the Dream Factories, which housed stars, support players, writers, directors, sound-stages, back-lots, editing suites, costumes, props, scenery, cameras, lighting gear and sound equipment.
Plus you had the offices, publicity and legal departments, special effects (miniatures and optical jiggery-pokery) the cafeteria – and if you needed a crowd, just ring up Central Casting and they would send you one.
Even if a film needed to go outside, it rarely went further than the studio backlot – which had streets, a quarry and even a studio tank, upon which any back-drop could be painted.
And if that was insufficient, you sent a Second Unit out to a nearby location recommended by the location scout – with doubles for your stars, dressed in identical costumes. The unit would then film your list of shots – making sure the doubles were filmed in long-shot, or with their faces turned away from camera.
Then they would set the camera up to film ten-minute reels of background scenes – called “plates” – which would be back-projected behind the stars, back in the studio.
Thus virtually all movies were made “in house” – with labour (labor) that was WAY cheaper than it is today.
So how ABOUT today? Well, these days all movies are essentially “one-offs”. Oh sure, the Dream Factories and their backlots still exist – and they still finance movies – however all productions are now basically INDEPENDENT.
And while they can still do interiors in studios, people expect them to go OUT – and into REAL streets, not the flat, studio ones.
Which means that today’s blockbusters cost a FORTUNE to make – and exhibit. And that throws the whole GROSS thing into disarray – because in real terms, ticket prices now cost over TWICE as much as they did in the Golden Age.
Then we have the punters – the cinema-goers themselves. Most of them are now KIDS. And while in this age, the U.S. population is TWICE what it was in the Golden age – its cinema attendances are less than ONE THIRD.
And then there are the viewing habits of said punters. Back in the Golden Age, even the Dream Factories could not keep up with demand – two new movies a day, with options – so all big films got RE-RELEASED. Some, many times.
Indeed, Disney THRIVED on re-releases, since their full-length cartoons took a YEAR to make – whereas new kids were being born all the time. Thus from ’38 to the mid-Sixties, they re-released ALL of their biggest hits every SEVEN YEARS.
And in the Seventies, producers discovered that they could increase the gross of their biggest hits by dusting them off – perhaps remixing their sound, using more recent technology – and reclaiming some bits that hit the cutting-room floor during the original edit – and maybe even doing a few (minor) re-shoots – then re-releasing them as a “Director’s Cut” or “Special Edition” – although that was a trick you could only pull ONCE.
But from the Golden Age right up to the Seventies, Hollywood itself screwed up the figures by making “road movies” – films that came in at three hours plus, which meant they were shown with a break and without second features.
Thus The Great Escape got ALL the gross – whereas Casablanca had to SHARE it with its accompanying “B” movie.
Plus, in the Golden Age, if you wanted to see a movie – you had to watch it in a CINEMA. But in the early Eighties, along came video-hire. First video-cassettes – then DVDs and now hi-def Blue-Ray disks.
These last pretty much KILLED theatrical re-releases. Their high price required them to come up with “extras” – which more often than not meant INCLUDING those “deleted scenes”.
So where does all of this leave us, in trying to compile a list of the most SUCCESSFUL films of all time? Well – up a gum-tree, basically.
You can compile a list of highest grossers – but it will be filled with films from just the last ten years.
Or you can “inflation-adjust” for first releases only – and get a totally different list, that includes Gone With The Wind as number one.
Or you can INCLUDE re-releases – and get a list where Gone With The Wind is still top – but the others are mostly Disney classics, with the first – Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – at number two.
Or, if you value Bottoms On Seats more – you end up with a list where ALL the titles are pre-1950.
And that only takes The States into account.
America does not CARE about The Rest Of The World – but Hollywood does. Half its revenue comes from there. Indeed, some films which do poorly in the “domestic” market, do somewhat better in the “foreign” one. Without us “foreigners” – Hollywood would be SCREWED.
However, when it comes to WORLD gross stats, figures for vintage movies are now IMPOSSIBLE to obtain. You would need SEPARATE breakdowns from EVERY country those movies were exhibited in, to compute those all-important inflation-adjusted numbers, given inflation figures have varied dramatically from country to country – and those numbers disappeared DECADES ago.
And even Bottoms On Seats would still require the NUMBERS.
Thus it can be seen that MEANINGFUL figures for movies’ successes are simply IMPRACTICAL to compute. The decline in attendances, despite the increase in population – the increase in costs, with the resultant increase in ticket prices – the advances in technology – the changes in society and its viewing habits – “road movies” – and Hollywood’s obsession with the NOW – all go to ensure any worthwhile chart of movie popularity is impossible to collate.
If one HAD the All-Time (including re-releases) World, Bottoms On (theatrical-only) Seats figures, this writer believes that The Most Successful Movie Of All Time would be… Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
As previously stated, it comes in at number TWO – on the U.S. list. But given Americans are a bunch of self-obsessed drama queens, it is inevitable THEY would prefer Gone With The Wind.
However, given that movie is a saga of The Old South – and Snow White is a timeless classic (not to mention, being a cartoon, DUBBED versions are far more satisfying) – this writer believes IT rules.
He has seen it about SEVENTY times – but FAST-FORWARDED through a DVD of Gone With The Wind and cannot IMAGINE the rest of the World would have been any more entranced than HE was. The Old South indeed!
But the fact is, the BEST movie of all time is the one YOU liked best – and liked AT THE TIME. It may have lost its power now – but if THEN, during those couple of hours, it lifted your soul and transported it to a place of wonder and excitement – then THAT was The Greatest Movie Ever Made.