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Hollywood spends millions to make billions or so it hopes
Rey (Daisy Ridley) and BB-8 in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which is fast becoming one of the biggest box-office hits of all time. - photo by Chris Hicks
Trying to accurately assess movie box-office earnings is probably a fools errand. And yet, once again, I go where angels fear to tread.

Using figures collected by Box Office Mojo ( and The Numbers (, the go-to online sites for movie money matters, lets take a look at our favorite flicks (at least, according to what we, collectively, spent our moviegoing dollars on) and where they currently rest on box-office-hit lists.

But first, a brief tutorial on movie budgets: Production costs for major-studio movies in the 21st century can range anywhere from $160 million (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2) to $300 million (Spectre).

One anomaly is Avatar, which is estimated to have had the biggest budget of all at $425 million. Of course, Avatar is also the biggest box-office hit ever. Well, sort of, as youll see later.

So when does a movie go into the black? Years ago, a Hollywood-studio mover-and-shaker told me that the formula is 2 times the budget. So a movie costing $100 million would have to earn back $250 million before it started making a profit. But more recently, Hollywood trade papers have reported that it takes double the budget.

Of course, that doesnt include worldwide advertising, which can be as much as $200 million all by itself. And while were going to be looking at the biggest hits, its safe to say that many more movies made for these outrageous costs barely get by.

Using the biggest movie of the moment as an example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens cost $200 million to make and probably another $200 million to advertise. But it has also gone wildly into big-profit mode, earning some $1.98 billion worldwide.

Which probably makes Disneys $4 billion Lucasfilm acquisition a couple of years ago look like a pretty sound investment to shareholders.

As of last weekend, The Force Awakens had earned $895 million domestically (North American theaters) and $1.1 billion in foreign venues, and its still climbing.

It has also risen to the top of the 2015 year-end list, which has shifted several titles down a notch since I wrote about this six weeks ago.

So heres the official 2015 top 10 domestically: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, The Martian, Cinderella and Spectre.

For comparisons sake, heres the 2015 top 10 worldwide: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, Spectre, Inside Out, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and The Martian.

As you see, both are very similar, except that U.S. and Canadian audiences liked Cinderella a bit more (No. 12 worldwide) and international audiences preferred Rogue Nation (No. 11 domestically).

So how about the all-time list?

First, the domestic top 10: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Avatar (2009), Titanic (1997), Jurassic World (2015), The Avengers (2012), The Dark Knight (2008), Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars (1977), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

The all-time worldwide top 10: Avatar (2009), Titanic (1997), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Jurassic World (2015), The Avengers (2012), Furious 7 (2015), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011), Frozen (2013) and Iron Man 3 (2013).

It should be noted that on the all-time domestic list, The Force Awakens, having earned $895.4 million, handily beat out Avatars $760.5 million and Titanics $658.6 million.

And worldwide, The Force Awakens, with $1.98 billion, isnt all that far behind Titanics $2.18 billion but itll be a horserace to catch up to Avatars $2.78 billion.

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, youll notice that worldwide grosses are now in the billions. In fact, each of the top 24 all-time hits internationally has earned more than $1 billion. Yikes!

And all 24, save Titanic, are franchise films, either the first in a film series or a sequel. That includes Avatar and Frozen, which have sequels in production, and 2010s Alice in Wonderland (No. 22), which has a sequel coming out in May.

Also, none is rated R.

Finally, we come to the all-time adjusted list. These are rankings with dollar figures adjusted for inflation or actual number-of-ticket sales, which better calculates the popularity of these movies.

In this top-10 scenario, the first eight films are adjusted to rise to the $1 billion-plus arena. And Gone With the Wind is still No. 1 by a couple hundred million.

The adjusted-for-inflation top 10: Gone With the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977), The Sound of Music (1965), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Titanic (1997), The Ten Commandments (1956), Jaws (1975), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Exorcist (1973) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

On this adjusted list, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is No. 11, and its the only 2015 movie to enter the top 200. Avatar is No. 15.
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