There are the greatest movies of all time, and there are the most popular. The former list is a matter of opinion—it includes the films that tastemakers say everybody should see. The latter list is a matter of fact—the movies that people really did see. Of course, lists of the all-time most successful films pop up all the time. Too bad they’re terribly misleading.
As a rule, when scholars or journalists try to list the most popular movies, they rank them in descending order of box office gross—the amount of money each made through ticket sales. If they want to compare the performance of classics with that of recent movies (apples to apples), they adjust the figures for inflation. Simple.
The problem is, that only provides dollar figures, and we decided to look for something deeper—human context. So instead of counting cash, we counted bodies, or actual box office admissions. Then we ventured into truly untrodden territory: We factored in videotape viewers. The result is the first-ever list of the 100 Most Popular Movies of All Time, accounting for how we really watch movies in the video age.
Here’s how we did it: To determine the number of people who saw a movie in theaters, we asked Exhibitor Relations, a film-industry clearinghouse, to calculate each movie’s gross and to divide that number by the average ticket price in the years in which the film played. To add video, we commissioned Video Business magazine—whose database of sales and rental information goes back to the earliest days of home video—to rank releases by the number of viewers. (Since tapes of older movies generally don’t rent well, a video-inclusive ranking of hits inevitably skews toward recent films.) Then we combined the movie and video numbers.
And which films are the all-time favorites? Ladies, gentlemen, film snobs, prepare yourselves for a shock….
1 E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) Steven Spielberg’s scrupulously detailed depiction of suburbia sets up an immediate reference point for viewers; his extraordinary infusion of cinematic magic into that setting grabs their hearts and doesn’t let go. Funny, breathtaking, tear-jerking, E.T. has a little bit of everything that people go to the movies for. Which may account for Spielberg’s initial reluctance to release the movie on video, even though it was the surest of sure things. When he finally gave in, elaborate marketing and wide availability convinced people who had never bought a prerecorded tape to go for it. (296,047,938 viewers)
2 GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) For decades the unassailable Mount Everest of popularity, this Civil War soap opera has still been seen by more people in theaters (198.5 million) than any other film. When it came out in 1939, Clark Gable was the manly king, Vivien Leigh was the source of massive curiosity, and the book was ingrained in every American’s head. Fifty-five years later, the movie is a cinematic touchstone. (281,000,000)
3 101 DALMATIANS (1961) Disney timed its theatrical rereleases of this adorable film very carefully, casting the spell of those spots over at least three generations of toddlers. Then whammo! The company hit ‘em with the video version. Of course, Disney did the same with most of its other animated classics, so how did this wonderful-but-still-no-Pinocchio item become No. 3? One word: puppies. (258,450,741)