‘Barbie’ has enjoyed huge box-office success, but widespread reports that it rules the roost over the Warner Bros. catalogue are a tad dubious. Just ask Regan MacNeil.

True champ: Linda Blair as Regan in ‘The Exorcist’ vs Margot Robbie in ‘Barbie’, which has taken less than half that film in adjusted dollars.

Godspeed to Barbie and all who sail in her. Blessings to director Greta Gerwig, star Margot Robbie and all those who have championed the film to its domination at the global box office, where it has set all sorts of records.

Causing much excitement is the film’s take of $US1,342,401,000, apparently making it the highest-grossing film in the history of Warner Bros.

It’s a lovely claim but one that comes with the huge caveat that the box-office takes of other films that Barbie has allegedly triumphed over are not adjusted for inflation.

Why not? Isn’t doing so just common sense?

Here’s why not: because taking inflation into account would make nonsense of the Barbie claim and – pop! – there goes your snappy headline.

This misleading method of reporting big box office takes without accounting for inflation has long been standard Hollywood practice, and it’s just lazy journalism that the media simply follows suit.

We saw it with Avatar (2009) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), both of which supposedly became the “Biggest Movies of All Time” upon their release, even though Jaws and Star Wars trumped both once inflation was rightly factored in.

In adjusted dollars, Gone With the Wind remains film history’s box office king with about $US3.5 billion. (And that’s not counting the home market, which would easily double that figure.)

Now to the phenomenal figures Barbie has achieved. At $1.34 billion is it really the biggest film in Warner Bros history?

Well, no.

It’s up there, so all respect to the film and to the marketing teams behind the $US150 million marketing campaign that conditioned audiences across the world to flock to it. That’s a big spend given how the film itself cost about $145m.

Yet putting Barbie in its rightful place is a clutch of Warner films that, once adjusted for inflation, made more – in some cases much more.

All it takes is to consult the relevant figures from the list of top-grossing Warner films at The Numbers and tapping them into a US inflation calculator to find how the figures stack up in 2023 terms and where Barbie actually stands, especially when compared to the appeal of a bespectacled boy wizard and his friends.

To wit:

Way, way back in 2001 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone took a massive $965m, which comes to a staggering $1.666bn in 2023;

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets made $874m in 2002, or $1.485bn in 2023;

In 2007 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix grossed $939m, or $1.384bn adjusted;

Contrary to all the claims that Barbie has “toppled” Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II the film took $1.315bn in 2011, which translates to $1.79bn in today’s money, leaving Barbie a little short;

Aquaman took $1.143bn in 2018, upsizing to $1.39bn;

The Dark Knight Rises made $1.082bn in 2012, or $1.44bn adjusted, while The Dark Knight took $998m in 2008 for 2023 gross of $1.417bn.

Even good old Superman: The Movie deserves a serious salute. In 1978 the film took a clean $300m, which comes to a neat $1.405bn in 2023 dollars.

But the beast Barbie needs to beat is The Exorcist.

The ultimate head turner with Linda Blair as possessed girl Regan O’Neil took $428m in 1973, an astonishing figure that translates to a whopping $2.948bn in 2023 dollars – more than twice where Barbie is now.

So, when it comes to toppling the titans of the Warners library, Barbie still has a ways to go – though it must be said Babs did outdo 2010’s Clash of the Titans ($493.2m/$691.4m adj) and 2012’s Wrath of the Titans ($305.3m/$406.5m adj). There.

Hopefully at some time in the far distant future reports of films that enjoy flash-in-the-pan box-office success will automatically adjust for inflation when comparing it to other films.

To not do so – sigh – renders meaningless any comparisons or claims of being the new box office champ. It might dampen the headline but at least it’d be more fair and accurate.

Yet why does the misleading practice continue?

Well, who wants to be a party pooper?

Fun footnote: A quick honourable mention must go to Kevin Costner and the gang for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, its 1991 take of $390.5m coming to a cozy inflation-adjusted sum of $876.5m, which is more than what many superhero films have made.

Footnote Duex: The figures above have been gathered and calculated in good faith using the stated method. Still, the author makes no claims of being much good at maths.

Hence, if there are any number nerds who wish to challenge, reinterpret, refute or question these numbers please feel welcome. Just bring a case and please – oh, please – be polite. Borderline innumeracy is tough enough to deal with.

Footnote The Third
It’s very important when talking about box office figures that a big gross at the box office and how profitable a film actually is are often two very different things. It all depends on the spend.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding cost a mere $6m and took an eye-watering $368.74m worldwide in 2002, or $626.6m in adjusted bananas. That makes it one of the most profitable films of all time.

In contrast, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road took $380m ($490.1m adjusted), but cost around $160m ($206m adj) to make, with the studio claiming the budget was more like $185.1m ($238m adj). According to The Hollywood Reporter the film lost between $20-$40m ($26-51.5m adj).

We look forward nonetheless to the prequel Furiosa, scheduled for May 2024.