This year's Oscar ceremony added new entries in the impressive list of records set by the movie Titanic. The most expensive, highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic had already garnered a record number of Oscar nominations when the largest television audience in Oscar history saw James Cameron's epic tie the record for winning the most awards.
Do all those superlatives thrill and delight you? Then I've got some bad news: Each of those records, while containing a kernel of truth, is mostly the product of Hollywood hype. It's all harmless fun, of course, as long as the subject is a popular movie. But the puffery surrounding Titanic is an object lesson in how easy it has become to get the media and the public to uncritically accept just about any list of authoritative-sounding numbers.
Let's start with the amount of money Titanic made at the box office–over $500 million at last count. The trouble with that figure is that it doesn't take inflation into account. Most Americans who saw Titanic probably paid about $7.00 to do so. By contrast, the average price for a ticket to Star Wars two decades ago was less than $5.00–and most people who paid to see Gone With the Wind nearly 60 years ago probably paid 50 cents at most. Is it really fair–or honest–to compare the money Titanic made today with figures from a time when movies (and nearly everything else) cost a fraction of what they do today?
When The Washington Post took a commonly accepted list of box-office receipts and adjusted them for inflation, Titanic didn't even rank among the top five. Topping the list was Gone With the Wind, which, had it been released today, would have grossed about $863 million domestically. Next on the list were Star Wars and E.T., followed by The Ten Commandments and The Sound of Music. Then comes another Steven Spielberg opus, Jaws, and another mid-1960s blockbuster, Doctor Zhivago. Titanic currently ranks eighth on this inflation-adjusted list–and while its ticket sales are certain to climb, it's going to have to sell over 50 million more tickets before it can really stake a claim as Hollywood's all-time box office champ.
The claim that Titanic was the costliest film of all time holds up only if you believe the studio's rough estimate that it cost $200 million to make the film. But if you accept earlier estimates of about $180 million–announced before the studio realized the perverse public-relations value of having spent too much money–Titanic probably ranks second on the list. First place–a dubious distinction in any case–goes to Cleopatra, the 1963 film remembered principally today for the fact that Elizabeth Taylor showed more cleavage than Madonna did at this year's Oscar ceremony. Once again, the key factor is adjusting for inflation, which pumps Cleopatra's original $37 million budget up to $194 million in today's dollars.
But the audience for this year's Oscar ceremony was the biggest in history, right? Yes, but that means less than it appears to at first blush. After all, there are more people today than at any time in history. So the raw total of viewers can go up year after year even if there is a drop in the percentage of the entire population watching the telecast, a far more accurate measure of popularity. Just under 35 percent of all American households watched Titanic rake in all those Oscars–an impressive figure, but only good enough to crack the top 10, according to USA Today. Nine other Oscar ceremonies since 1968 have had higher ratings–led by the 1970 broadcast, which was seen in 43 percent of all American households.
Then there are the tallies of Oscar nominations and Oscar victories. It's indisputable that the number of Oscars Titanic won tied the record set by Ben Hur in 1959. And its 14 nominations equaled the mark set by All About Eve in 1950. Here, Titanic is the beneficiary of another kind of inflation–the fact that the Academy hands out more Oscars today than in previous years.
Remember when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, beating by one the record Babe Ruth had set in 1927? The problem was that Maris had eight more games in which to hit those home runs. Would Ruth have hit more dingers if he had played more games? We'll never know–but in fairness to the Bambino, the commissioner of baseball originally ordered an asterisk placed next to Maris's figure in the record books.
Titanic's record-tying number of awards and nominations qualify for similar asterisks. Ben Hur won 73 percent of the awards it was eligible for; Titanic won 64 percent–an awesome performance, but still shy of first place. Or look at it another way: If we count only the categories in which All About Eve was eligible, Titanic only racks up 12 nominations–two fewer than the Bette Davis classic. Would Ben Hur have won another Oscar if they had given a statuette for best sound effects editing in 1959? Would All About Eve have won more nominations than Titanic if there were a category for best makeup in 1950? We'll never know–but it does seem fair to attempt to set the record straight in some way.
When all is said and done, Titanic remains a fabulously expensive, wildly successful movie that won a huge number of awards–including the much-coveted Best Picture of the year. But best is not necessarily the same as highest or biggest. Keep Titanic in mind the next time you wonder whether to challenge the numbers a government or business official uses to make a point or win an argument.
T. Keating Holland is polling director for CNN.
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