Putting Gone With the Wind ticket sales into perspective

Any time someone wants to blow off the impressiveness of ticket sales in a modern context whether it be Spider Man or Titanic they always imply that the inflation adjusted numbers diminish the feat that was accomplished. I think this is pure nonsense.

Certainly Gone With the Wind had the highest ticket sales. But blowing off market advantages in a market means that fairness dictates we take a look into Gone With the Wind’s economic advantages due to its time and place.

  1. Gone With the Wind had few competitors.

By this I don’t mean competing against other films. I mean it wasn’t competing against hundreds of HD cable channels, 40 hour long video games, there were fewer live events to attend such as rock concerts, icecapades, Criss Angel Mindfreek’s or David Blane risking his life and calling it magic. There were fewer martial arts, yoga and dance classes. Fewer people travelled around the world or across the country to Disneyland, Vegas or New York. In short there simply was less to do, less available on the marketplace. Sure there was stuff to do, don’t get me wrong but it was a different era. Going to the movie was an event, it wasn’t a mundane activity you did when you wanted to just get out with your friends on a Friday night. There were fewer entertainment options competing for your dollars.

Also, as I understand it Gone With the Wind was released several times in the theaters. This doesn’t happen much anymore since people buy the DVD now. Not to mention it didn’t have to compete with the entire canon of the history of film mailed to you by Netflix. People only saw what movies were in the theater. If they wanted to see a movie they saw what was in the theaters and that was it, period.

It was also one of the first big budget special effects extravaganzas. Hell, they burned down all the old sets from other older movies to make that movie.

I just wanted to start a discussion of the context in which we rate the success of films, and point out the turning up one’s nose because it is rated by inflation adjusted rates that benefit the newest movies disproportionately does not diminish the validity of a movie doing well in a current context.

You also have to put it in the context of total marketplace. The U.S. population is maybe double what it was then, and the global markets are bigger than the domestic market.

U.S. Population in 1939 130,000,000.

U.S. Population in 2009 307,000,000.

Agreed and I thought of that, it just didn’t make it into the post. But even so the proportion of market share that Gone With the Wind had due to the lack of competition blows away the opportunities modern audiences have. So while the population is larger the potential audience is much much smaller.

Wasn’t 1939 a very good year for Hollywood? You had *The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, *just to name a few. When were they released in relation to GWTW?

And weren’t there war rumblings on the horizon?

GWTW was released in Atlanta on Dec 15th. It essentially didn’t play in many cities before late January, early February. And the ticket prices were set rather high–nationwide. So, it didn’t have all the movies that were released in 1939 as competition.

Most showings were two matinees, typically 10:30AM and 2:15 PM, cost .75 (this was double/triple the cost of the average movie.

Evening performances at 8:00 or so, and cost was $1.10 or $1.20, all seats reserved. Again, quite high for a movie.

26,000,000 saw the film in 1940. (I can’t vouch for that number being just in the US) (at rediculously high prices).

It was only in 1941 that the film was reissued at “popular prices.”

A majorly important point. There was no such thing as multiplexes- many decent sized cities only had one movie theater- and there were hundreds of films released that year. (761 by this source.) Then you had as mentioned Wizard of Oz as well as Hunchback of Notre Dame, Goodbye Mr. Chips and other major hits, so GWTW is still impressive to be the undisputed champion of that year.

I would put either ET or Return of the Jedi (I’m not sure which has made more money to date- almost certainly ET if you discount the revamped Jedi and the merchandising, but no idea whether you should) as the last blockbuster that didn’t have to compete with cable. It was widely available then but there were still many many millions of Americans who didn’t have it, and there were fewer movies released that year by far than in 1939.

More amazing to me is that GWTW drew just under 50% of the audience when it premiered on television 37 years after it’s release. That’s amazing half-life. Ironically it was Roots- the “downstairs” to GWTW “upstairs” coverage of the same society, that broke that record a few months later when it got just over 50%. Of course today you’d have to televise an orgy followed by an interview with a live space alien to get a 50% share. (I think the all time high percentagewise was when Little Ricky was born on I Love Lucy- over 80%, though of course not as many people owned television sets percentage wise either.) I’m trying to think of what could conceivably get a 50% share today- a XXX HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: ORGY! with the original cast perhaps, or if Katie Couric landed an exclusive with a space alien, but even then I’m not sure.

. What size cities would that be that only had one theater? Maybe a town of 5,000?


I consider that decent size actually. Moreso in 1939.

Wizard of Oz was almost played out by the time that GWTW was in general release. Wizard had been released in Sept. of 1939, while GWTW was only shown in the largest 27 cities until Feb. 8th(approximately) 1940. Six months later.

GWTW should only be compared to films that were released in either late December 1939, or the first half of 1940.

Like it matters. The point is that 69 or 70 years later it’s going strong while all but a couple of the other hundreds of movies released within a few months on either side of it are mostly forgotten.

So, it did face Destry Rides Again, of Mice and Men, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, The Blue Bird, and the Grapes of Wrath, to name some movies that came out in December of 1939 and January of 1940.

Just a little note here: Before the multiplex, I lived in a city of 15,000. There had once been two theaters and a drive-in, but one of the theaters went bust. The remaining one would show one main movie and one lesser movie, alternating times. It would show those movies for a week, usually, changing on Wednesday. If it was a BIG movie it would be there for two weeks. In Cold Blood was there for two weeks.

Lots of movies never made it into town at all. We had to go to a big city to see The Graduate, for instance. But in general movies were spaced out well enough that most of the hot movies got to town eventually.

In the '70s this theater remodeled its balcony and added a second screen. Later in the '70s the first multiplex (4, count 'em, 4) screens. Now it probably has a dozen shoebox-sized, and the original theater has become a venue for live shows, as the other theater–the one that closed in the '50s–was for decades.

15,000 was a decent size for a city in the midwest. There were lots that were smaller. And for all those people, if they didn’t like the movie that week, well, there was always next week. And for a much-anticipated movie, as GWtW probably was in 1940, probably there were a lot of sold-out showings.

If only Hollywood would produce original movies like these again, and not a bunch of adaptations like they do now.

In 1939, I’m guessing many cities in 5,000 population range had at least two theaters. A typical one-theater town probably had between 500 to 1500 people.

Also, despite the OP’s contention, movie-going was actually a fairly common activity. On the whole, it was considerably more common in 1939 than it is now. A significant percentage of the population went to at least one movie per week.

As for other media that competed for people’s attention back then, there was radio. Listening was considerably cheaper and more convenient than going to the movies but there were no pictures (except for those in your mind).

Hollywood does produce original movies.

What contention are you talking about? I contended that they didn’t have TVs not that they didn’t go to movies. My post is actually predicated off of the idea that people went to movies more often due to the lack of television.

Right. But it didn’t have the panoply of choices we are presented with today.

Woosh! :wink: