The Success of Animated Fantasy and Science-Fiction Cinema

  Fig. 1 -  Star Wars: The Force Awakens  (J.J. Abrams, 2015).

Fig. 1 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015).

When researching my contribution to Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant’s collection Fantasy/Animation, I examined a range of sources that demonstrated the enormous box office success, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, of fantasy and science-fiction movies, and of ‘animation’ (a category here understood to include live action films heavily reliant on computer generated imagery) in recent decades. These sources also suggested a longer history for the success of such movies in the cinema and other media. Some of this research was inconclusive, and some of it exceeded the scope of my chapter; therefore little of it made it into the collection. But I thought it was worth revisiting my research for this blog.

To begin with, it is necessary to provide some working definitions. While ‘fantasy’ can be understood as a mode or genre cluster (which includes, among other things, science-fiction), here it is understood as a genre characterised by the presence of unnatural or supernatural events and creatures, often situated in an alternative universe or a mythical past, whereas science-fiction typically deals with more or less scientific extrapolations from the here and now into the future and onto other places in the universe (in some cases an alternative history is created by imagining the impact of advanced technologies in our past). There are all kinds of problems with such working definitions but without them it is difficult to proceed. I will highlight several issues in the course of my survey.

We can begin by taking a look at Box Office Mojo’s all-time US box office chart, adjusted for ticket price inflation [1]. Fantasy and science-fiction are very prominent in this chart: George Lucas’s ‘space fantasy’ Star Wars (1977) is at number 2, Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction family drama E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) at number 4, and Disney’s fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937) at number 10, followed by the heavily CGI-reliant Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) (Fig. 1). The top ten immediately raise the question of how to categorise films - such as The Ten Commandments (Cecil Blount DeMille,1956, no. 6) (Fig. 2) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973, no. 9) - that deal with religion (with or without horrific imagery and acts). Clearly these films prominently feature supernatural elements, but many people might find it offensive to label a Biblical epic as fantasy, and others might want to classify The Exorcist as horror rather than as fantasy in the narrow sense of the word. For the purposes of this post, I will highlight religious films separately.

  Fig. 2 - Biblical epic    The Ten   Commandments    (  Cecil Blount DeMille,1956  ).

Fig. 2 - Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (Cecil Blount DeMille,1956).

If we break down the Box Office Mojo chart into different periods,[2] we find that since 1977 fantasy and science-fiction, including, from the early 1990s onwards, many animated and CGI-dependent movies, have been dominant. Between 1967 and 1976, these film types were rare among top-grossing movies (only two of the top ten for this decade, if we count The Exorcist[3]. From 1949 to 1966, both Biblical epics and (mostly animated) fairytales were very prominent (five of the top ten, plus two James Bond films which one might want to add because they feature somewhat futuristic technology). And from the years before 1949, three of Disney’s animated fairytales have steadily risen in the all-time chart through numerous re-releases, eventually outgrossing all other films from this period except for Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939, no. 1 overall). It is difficult to determine whether the same pattern applies to Hollywood’s export hits because there are no consolidated box office charts for the decades before the 1970s [4]. Even if they existed, it would be extremely laborious to adjust box office returns for ticket price inflation in many different countries (as well as fluctuating exchange rates). But from the late 1970s onwards, we can examine the annual export charts,[5] and also a non-adjusted all-time chart [6]. While there are some differences between export charts and the equivalent domestic charts,[7] they do reveal the same pattern with regards to the dominance, from 1977 onwards, of fantasy and science-fiction, including, from the early 1990s onwards, many animated and CGI-dependent movies. There are also some indications in the incomplete data sets for the earlier decades that several of Disney’s fairytales and a few Biblical epics performed particularly well in cinemas outside the United States until the late 1960s.

From Hollywood’s point of view, then, domestic and export markets are in many respects very similar – but before we conclude from this that we are dealing with global patterns, we have to consider the fact that for a long time the cinema markets in many countries were dominated by local productions. This was the case in major European markets until the 1970s and in China until the late 1990s (since then Chinese box office charts have been roughly equally split between domestic productions and Hollywood imports), and in India it is still the case today.[8] So it might be worth investigating how successful both locally produced and imported religious, fantasy and science-fiction films as well as animation and CGI-dependent productions have been across the decades in individual countries. At the same time, it is interesting to take a closer look at the global dominance of fantasy and science-fiction, including many animated and CGI-reliant films, in recent decades. As already mentioned, it is difficult to compare global box office revenues across decades, due to ticket price inflation and fluctuating exchange rates (as well as changes in the overall size of the global market) [9]. Yet we can reduce the distortions caused by these factors, by breaking the list of all-time top grossing movies around the world [10] down into five year periods (starting in 1977, because there is insufficient information for the preceding years). If, due to their emphasis on futuristic technologies, superpowers (with or without scientific explanations) and other elements, we by and large count superhero movies as science-fiction and/or fantasy, then we can say that four of the top five films around the world in the years 1977-81 belonged into the science-fiction and/or fantasy category. Here are the figures for subsequent five year periods: three of the top five for 1982-86; three of the top five for 1987-1991 (including Terminator 2: Judgment Day [James Cameron, 1991] [Fig. 3], which featured spectacular CGI effects); four of the top five for 1992-96 (including two animated features; from this point onwards almost all top hits use subtle and/or spectacular CGI);[11] four of the top five for 1997-2001; all of the top five for 2002-6 (including two animated features); all of the top five for 2007-11 (including one animated feature); and all of the top five for 2012-16.

  Fig. 3 -  Terminator 2 Judgment Day  (James Cameron, 1991).

Fig. 3 - Terminator 2 Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991).

Does this complete dominance of (mostly animated or CGI-dependent) fantasy and science-fiction at the global box office extend to other media? I have not been able to find many data on global sales figures for films on videotape, DVD or Blu-rays. However, one attempt, in November 2015, to determine the twelve best-selling DVDs of all time around the world found that all of them belonged into the fantasy and science-fiction categories (whereby five were animated features) [12]. For the US, a range of charts are available. In Wikipedia’s list of the top-selling videotapes of all time in the US, there is only one film among the first seventeen titles which does not belong into the fantasy and science-fiction categories, and that film is the heavily CGI-dependent Titanic (James Cameron, 1997, at no. 5); eleven of the top seventeen films were animated features [13]. Since the 1990s, videotapes have of course been replaced by DVDs and Blu-rays. The website The Numbers features a chart of the best-selling Blu-rays of all time in the US [14]. All of the top twenty titles belong into the fantasy and science-fiction categories (and most of them are either animated features or heavily CGI-dependent). Curiously, this website does not present an all-time sales chart for DVDs, but Wikipedia’s overview (based on figures from The Numbers) of the annual top ten for combined DVD and Blu-ray sales from 2006 to 2018 shows that there are hardly any films which do not belong into the fantasy and science-fiction categories (on average only one per year); three to four out of the top ten films were animated features, and the other fantasy and science-fiction hits were almost all heavily dependent on CGI [15]. All these figures would seem to suggest, then, that fantasy/animation is an extraordinary important area of study indeed, if we want to understand the place of movies in 20th and early 21st century global culture.

 

Notes

[1] See http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm; last accessed 13 July 2018.

[2] On the periodisation I am using here, see Peter Krämer, The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (London: Wallflower, 2005).

[3] It is worth noting that during the 1960s and 1970s, several Biblical epics as well as the Planet of the Apes (1968-73) movies and The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) were among the highest rated films shown on American network television; see Cobbett Steinberg, Film Facts (New York: Facts on File, 1980), 32-8.

[4] Information on the biggest export hits of several Hollywood studios in selected years before the 1970s can be found in their internal ledgers which were published as microfiche supplements to the following essays: H. Mark Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 12, no. 2, (June 1992): 127–43; Richard B. Jewell, “RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: The C.J. Tevlin Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 14, no. 1 (March 1994): 37-50; and H. Mark Glancy, “Warner Bros. Film Grosses, 1921-51: The William Schaefer Ledger,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 15, no. 1 (March 1995): 55-74.

[5] See https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/international/all-movies/cumulative/released-in-1975. For the year 1975, only the top grosser is listed here. For subsequent years, the annual chart contains more and more films. It should be noted that the American film industry regards Canada as part of its domestic market.

[6] See https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/international/all-movies/cumulative/all-time.

[7] Cp. Peter Krämer, “Hollywood and Its Global Audiences: A Comparative Study of the Biggest Box Office Hits in the United States and Outside the United States Since the 1970s”, Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, eds. Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 171-84.

[8] See again, Krämer, “Hollywood and Its Global Audiences”. Annual box office charts for India for 2007-9 can be found at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/india/yearly/?yr=2007&p=.htm, for China since 2007 at  http://www.boxofficemojo.com/intl/india/yearly/?yr=2007&p=.htm. Information on other countries can also be found on Box Office Mojo. Long-term developments in the box office charts of various European countries have been studied by Joseph Garncarz; see, for example, Joseph Garncarz, Hollywood in Deutschland: Zur Internationalisierung der Kinokultur, 1925-1990 (Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2013); and Joseph Garncarz, Wechselnde Vorlieben: Über die Filmpräferenzen der Europäer, 1896-1939 (Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2015).

[9] For a highly speculative attempt to compile an all-time global box office chart which is adjusted for ticket-price inflation, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#Highest-grossing_films_adjusted_for_inflation. For an attempt to identify the global top grosser for every year since 1915, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#Highest-grossing_films_adjusted_for_inflation.

[10] See http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/?pagenum=1&p=.htm, last accessed 13 July 2018.

[11] In fact, from the late 1990s onwards, all animated top hits were computer-generated, and most of the top hits still widely perceived as live-action actually included so much CGI that the website The Numbers classified them as ‘Animation/Live Action Movies’; https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/worldwide/all-movies/production-methods/animation-and-live-action.

[12] See https://www.insidermonkey.com/blog/11-best-selling-dvds-of-all-time-370105/.

[13] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_films_in_the_United_States#VHS; last accessed 13 July 2018.

[14] See https://www.the-numbers.com/alltime-bluray-sales-chart; last accessed 13 July 2018.

[15]See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_films_in_the_United_States#DVD_and_Blu-ray; last accessed 13 July 2018.

 

Biography

Peter Krämer is a Senior Fellow in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of The General (BFI Film Classics, 2016), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (BFI Film Classics, 2014), A Clockwork Orange (Palgrave ‘Controversies’, 2011), 2001: A Space Odyssey (BFI Film Classics, 2010) and The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (Wallflower Press, 2005), and the co-editor of The Hollywood Renaissance: Revisiting American Cinema’s Most Celebrated Era (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (Black Dog, 2015), The Silent Cinema Reader (Routledge, 2004) and Screen Acting (Routledge, 1999).