‘The Dark Knight’ Drills Through $500 Million

On Sunday, The Dark Knight became only the second film ever to cross $500 million domestically. It took just 45 days to reach the mark versus 98 days for Titanic, the only other film to cross the half a billion mark. However, Titanic had a much less frontloaded run than most blockbusters, which allowed it to stay in wide release for nearly a year.

With $503 million as of Sunday, The Dark Knight needs nearly $100 million more to sink Titanic, but with the weekend takes now slipping below $10 million, that possibility is becoming unlikely. It’s still not completely out of the realm of possibility yet, especially if Warner Bros. is able to keep all or most of its still lucrative IMAX screens for several more months. There’s also still a chance of the film being re-released January in theaters if the anticipated Oscar nominations are realized.

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Now that there is serious buzz about The Dark Knight becoming the highest grossing film of all time, I thought now would be a good time to look back at the films of yore that have had the honor of being known as the top dog of the domestic box office.

Gone With the Wind – 1939

Unlike today, back in the 1930’s there was not a standard practice for publishing box office ticket sales, let alone releasing weekend numbers every week. So it is fairly unknown what film(s) held the title before Gone with the Wind. Unofficially, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have held the record briefly when it was released in 1937, but that film has been re-released so many times over the last 70 years that it’s hard to tell how much money it actually made during its initial box office run. One of the very first feature films ever made, 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, may have been the highest grossing film for nearly 20 years, but that is still relatively unknown.

There’s no denying, though, that Gone with the Wind, was at one time the highest grossing film of all time. It was the first film to crack $100 million and nearly cracked $200 million with $189.5 million during its initial run in theaters that lasted for several decades. The film has been officially re-released twice in theaters. Once in 1989 and once in 1998. Those runs added a combined $9.2 million giving it a grand total of $198.7 million.

Gone with the Wind was one of the rare films from that era in which the opening weekend take is known. On the weekend of Decmeber 15-17, 1939, the film debuted with $945,000, which would probably be adjusted to slightly over $10 million in today’s dollars. That may not seem like a lot, but the number of theaters that existed back then was exponentially smaller, and the film likely opened at only a fraction of the screens that were available at the time.

Even after several decades of inflation, the Clark Gable starring film still lies among the highest grossing films of all time. It is in fact, the only film prior to 1970 that still has a place in the top 100. Gone with the Wind, though, is still the highest grossing film when adjusted for ticket price inflation. It is estimated to be the only film to sell over 200 million tickets, 60% higher than the current box office champion, Titanic. To give you an idea of just how big that number actually is, the population of the US during Wind‘s time was roughly 120-150 million, according to the US Census. In Titanic‘s time, the population was around 280 million so of course the latter film had a larger pool of potential moviegoers.

The Exorcist – 1973

Gone with the Wind remained at the top for over 30 years until America discovered how scary a possessed young girl could be. I am, of course, referring to The Exorcist. Any discussion concerning the box office limitations of an ‘R’ rated film ends here. The Exorcist is in fact the only ‘R’ rated movie to ever have been known as the top grossing film of all time. The film may be fairly tame by today’s horror standards where the blood, gore, and “shock factor” have ramped up substantially, but that does not take away from how truly terrified audiences were after seeing it.

During its initial box office run that started in 1973, Exorcist scared up a massive $193 million, or nearly $800 million when adjusted for ticket place inflation. The Director’s Cut, released in theaters in 2000, added an additional $39.7 million bringing its grand total to $232.7 million. The film has been spoofed countless times, and has spawned several inferior sequels and even prequels.

Like Gone with the Wind, The Exorcist is still in the top 100 grossing films of all time. When adjusted for inflation, the fright film still sits at number nine. More >>