Star Wars: The Force Awakens has topped the North American box office as the all-time #1 movie. Or, at least, the current all-time #1 movie. As someone will inevitably point out, the real winner after inflation is still Gone With the Wind. But there’s a problem with that comparison, not the least of which is that The Force Awakens is victorious in a way Gone With the Wind never had the chance to be.
First, a few ground rules: We’ll just be looking at Gone With the Wind‘s first release for the purposes of comparison. Secondly, we’ll adjust for inflation using this inflation calculator. Finally, we’ll be looking at theatrical gross, not tickets sold, for reasons we’ll get into.
The numbers speak for themselves, right? Gone With the Wind made, after inflation, a mind-boggling amount of money: more than $3 billion. That would seem to end the argument: After all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens currently “only” has $850 million to its name as of this writing. However, there remains a huge difference, because Star Wars and Gone With The Wind were released, and sold to the public, in very different ways.
First, a simple question: How many people do you know who are just going to wait for Star Wars to hit home video? Even if it’s just a handful, that’s more than those who had a chance to wait when Gone With the Wind was first released. When Gone With the Wind came out in 1939, broadcast television was still a wild experiment. Repertory theaters, showing old movies, only existed in major cities and were still mostly a nascent concept. So, if you were going to see Gone With the Wind when it first came out, you had to get to the theater or hope a re-release came by at some point, if it ever came by at all. (Yes, Grandpa experienced FOMO over pop culture just like you.)
This was something studio head Louis B. Mayer made integral to the marketing. Imagine for a moment Disney decided that, after all this hype, it was going to tour Star Wars from city to city, one show at a time, for six months, and to see it, you not only had to go to an IMAX 3D theater, you had to pay them $48 to $60 for the privilege. That’s exactly what Mayer did, with a “roadshow” presentation that cost a dollar, in an era where the average ticket price was just 23 cents. Technically, Gone With the Wind didn’t hit what we’d consider a “wide” release until 1941. So, for two years, the only way to see Gone With The Wind was to pay a four-fold premium and either hope it came to your city or you could somehow get there.
Not that there were many other options if people wanted to go to the movies back then. One of the dirty secrets of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one that makes box-office records from that era so difficult to compare to the modern day, is that movie studios owned theater chains. While they only had 17 percent of the market, that 17 percent accounted for 45 percent of film revenue. Independent theaters were often powerless, something studios took advantage of. While many towns had more than one theater, there wasn’t nearly as much competition as there is today.
The Force Awakens, by contrast, could theoretically have been taken down its first weekend. True, The Road Chip and Sisters seem unlikely contenders to defeat one of the most hyped movies of all time, but Star Wars had plenty of competition for filmgoer dollars. It still had to fight for each ticket right up until each was bought, something Gone With the Wind never had to face in its first run.
Another factor at work is that culture is more diffuse than ever. For all the complaining about so many forms of entertainment vying for our attention, in truth, that makes the stuff that unifies us all the more valuable. The Force Awakens cut through a level of cultural noise that few movies outside the modern era have ever actually faced. When it’s so easy to sit on the couch and boot up Netflix or buy a movie off Amazon and watch it on a ninety-inch screen, a movie that can compel us to go to a theater and have a genuine shared experience is no small thing.
Gone With the Wind enjoyed a powerful advantage both in the lack of cultural noise and the fact that there was simply more control. It couldn’t be forced out of theaters on its second weekend to make room for an Andy Hardy picture that was making more money, and in fact its studio knew exactly how long it could run at exactly how many theaters. Nobody at MGM had to figure out how to get the “Eh, I’ll wait for it to be on TV” audience into the theater.
So yes, in raw numbers, it’s technically correct that Gone With the Wind has made more money, but The Force Awakens has achieved something genuinely rare in the modern era. It created a phenomenon that drew millions of people together to share something in a theater. That’s an achievement most filmmakers can only dream of, and pulling it off is a considerable accomplishment.