In terms of popular culture, anyway. It's how we know just how popular a piece of culture is, how much impact it's generated, how far it will seep into our common consciousness.
The size of an audience says things about what we need, who we are and who we will likely be.
And that's why all the hoopla these past weeks about “The Dark Knight” catching up to “Titanic” for the No. 1 spot in American box office history needs to be put in context.
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The biggest movie of all time is not about a bat, and it's not about a boat. It's about a Butler. And a mansion. And a war. And a romance.
It's also about 70 years old. The biggest movie of all time is “Gone With the Wind,” which was released in 1939. It starred Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler.
It has earned $198 million in theaters over the years, a nifty piece of change by any standards. But when you factor in the dizzying ticket inflation rate of the past seven decades, its total comes to $1,430,476,000, according to the good folks over at boxofficemojo.com.
That's $1.4 billion. When you adjust for inflation, 1997's “Titanic,” at $908 million, still isn't even close. And this year's champ, “The Dark Knight,” at $504 million so far, is nearly a billion dollars short.
Actually, “Titanic” is only No. 6 on the overall list when inflation is factored in. And “The Dark Knight” is way back at No. 29.
Which only makes sense. Right now, the average ticket price in America is about $7.08.
Nobody was keeping good statistics on admissions back in those days. For example, in 1939, according to boxofficemojo.com, the average ticket price was a whopping 23 cents. But tickets for some movies, including “Gone With the Wind,” ranged considerably higher – sometimes upwards of a dollar or more.
Still, the number of tickets at those prices must have been sold to bring home even $50 million is mind-boggling.
And here's the big catch: In 1940, there were less than 140 million people in the United States. These days, there are more than 300 million.