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If you want to tell the story of America at the movies, look no further than the list of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time.
Yes, we live in an era when the next hit film is as likely to arrive on a streaming service as it is on a movie theater screen. But the calculation of which movies get the biggest audience still matters because Hollywood is a business — and if a film can bring in massive amounts of revenue, it has the power to shift the culture at large.
That’s why the list of the highest-grossing films at the US box office is so telling — as long as you’re looking at the right rankings.
If you gloss over the current domestic box office winners, you’ll get a mixed bag of mostly sequels, superhero movies and a lot of Disney-produced films. Not to mention, nearly every title will be from the last 10 years.
The actual list to review is the one that accounts for inflation. That list includes classics such as “Jaws,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Sound of Music” — movies that aren’t just popular, but that are also milestones in film history and have helped define American culture, for better or worse. (You don’t need to be a film historian to guess that the highest-grossing movies at the domestic box office aren’t that diverse; Hollywood, like the rest of the country, is still grappling with representation of all Americans.)
These are the 10 biggest blockbusters in American history, according to industry data site Box Office Mojo:
10. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’
When it was released: 1937
What it made before inflation: $184.9 million
What it made after inflation: $982 million
Why it matters: Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first animated feature, and it helped build the cultural and financial behemoth that the House of Mouse is today (I mean, the Disney headquarters in Burbank, California is literally held up by the Seven Dwarfs).
“It turned cartoons into cinematic art,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told CNN. “It would forever change the perception of animation as more than just filler to keep kids occupied and distracted.”
9. ‘The Exorcist’
When it was released: 1973
What it made before inflation: $232.9 million
What it made after inflation: $996.4 million
Why it matters: Terrifying people has always been good business for Hollywood, and arguably no film scared more people than “The Exorcist.” The film, starring a head-turning Linda Blair, caused some in the audience to actually faint during the its initial release.
The devilishly frightening film helped popularize supernatural thrillers and showed that horror could be popular and acclaimed. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
8. ‘Doctor Zhivago’
When it was released: 1965
What it made before inflation: $111.7 million
What it made after inflation: $1.11 billion
Why it matters: The story of “Doctor Zhivago” is dramatic, romantic and, most importantly, immersive — despite the movie not being able to shoot on location. The film starred Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, two of cinema’s most breathtaking stars at the time, and it entranced audiences for more than three hours. Filled with conflict and love affairs during the Russian Revolution, it’s the very definition of an “epic.”
When it was released: 1975
What it made before inflation: $260 million
What it made after inflation: $1.15 billion
Why it matters: “Jaws” is considered by many to be Hollywood’s first true blockbuster. “Simply put, the summer movie season as we know it today would not exist if not for ‘Jaws,'” Dergarabedian said. The adventure/horror film has become a classic thanks to its chilling yet simple score, jump scares and endless rewatchability.
“Jaws” also made director Steven Spielberg a household name, which helped kick off one of the most successful and prolific careers in box office history (case in point, Spielberg has two films on this list).
6. ‘The Ten Commandments’
When it was released: 1956
What it made before inflation: $65.5 million
What it made after inflation: $1.18 billion
Why it matters: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” turned one of the most familiar stories of all time into one of the most stunning films ever made. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and became a staple of the Easter holiday thanks to its annual showings on ABC since 1968.
“‘The Ten Commandments’ is, in many ways, the summit of screen achievement,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote in its 1956 review. “It is not just a great and powerful motion picture, although it is that; it is also a new human experience.”
When it was released: 1997
What it made before inflation: $659.3 million
What it made after inflation: $1.22 billion
Why it matters: The only film to make this top 10 list from the last 25 years, “Titanic” was a worldwide phenomenon which has arguably only grown in stature over the last two-and-a-half decades.
The film mixed an epic romance with an adventurous disaster story, helping kick off the rise of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. James Cameron’s classic is also one of the most acclaimed films in cinema history winning a record 11 Oscars including Best Picture. Cameron’s other major blockbuster, “Avatar,” may be No. 1 all time on the global box office list, but ranks at No. 15 domestically after inflation.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the song …
4. ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’
When it was released: 1982
What it made before inflation: $435 million
What it made after inflation: $1.27 billion
Why it matters: “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” the second film on the list from Spielberg, is one of the most iconic films in history. Quotes like “E.T. phone home” and images like a bike flying across the moon have been seared into the public’s consciousness and hearts.
“Steven Spielberg was at the height of his early career powers and moviegoers could not get enough,” Dergarabedian said. “The film led the box office for an astonishing 16 weekends — a record that stands to this day.”
3. ‘The Sound of Music’
When it was released: 1965
What it made before inflation: $159 million
What it made after inflation: $1.28 billion
Why it matters: Even if you’ve never seen “The Sound of Music,” you know its soundtrack and can likely picture its opening shot. It’s that classic.
The film, arguably the most popular movie musical in history, has had audiences singing along for decades to many of its beloved hits such as “My Favorite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi.”
“In the midst of the massive political turmoil of the mid-1960’s Vietnam era, audiences found solace in the lives and music of the singing Von Trapp family,” Dergarabedian said, and it seems audiences have found solace in the film ever since.
2. ‘Star Wars’
When it was released: 1977
What it made before inflation: $460 million
What it made after inflation: $1.6 billion
Why it matters: What’s left to say about “Star Wars” that hasn’t been said before?
George Lucas’ space saga changed Hollywood and American pop culture in almost every way from introducing groundbreaking special effects, to the idea that films could be massive franchises, to creating a whole new galaxy of characters (and merchandising) to the masses.
More experience than movie, the impact of “Star Wars” is still being felt today and the galaxy far, far away will likely continue to grow in popularity for generations to come.
1. ‘Gone with the Wind’
When it was released: 1939
What it made before inflation: $200 million
What it made after inflation: $1.82 billion
Why it matters: “Gone with the Wind” is arguably America’s most popular film, for better or worse.
“It is Hollywood at its Hollywood-ist,” John Wiley Jr., the author of “The Scarlett Letters: The Making of the Film Gone With the Wind,” told CNN in 2014. “The cinematography, the fact that it was in technicolor, the performances, the music, the costumes. It’s the iconic film in Hollywood history.”
That doesn’t mean the film starring Clarke Gable and Vivian Leigh is without major issues. The film’s portrayal of slavery and the Civil War South, along with a scene that involves marital rape, has shined a harsher, more critical light on the film in the years since its release.
Yet, the size, scope and impact of the movie on American cinema cannot be understated. In short, filmgoers gave a damn about “Gone with the Wind” and likely still do.
Written by Frank Pallotta for CNN.
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