Classic film box office in-take?
November 27, 2005 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Classic film box office intake? Where, if at all, can you find information about the amount grossed (at least in America) by films in the 1920/30s? Specifically looking for Fritz Lang's films but general information would also be useful.
posted by hugsnkisses to Media & Arts (5 answers total)
It's, in my experience, really hard to find box office data about films that old, but my best guess is Variety, which has been around since 1905 (Daily Variety since 1933, which would cover much of Lang's career). You basically can't get to anything without paying for a subscription, but you can give them your credit card and get a month's free trial, which you can cancel without being charged. You can only do this once, but if you need the info, it's worth a shot. (Not that I've ever done this for a project. AHEM.) I'm not sure how complete their archives are - I was looking for 10 year old data, not 70 year old, but Variety is the go-to source for industry info.

If you're in university, you might be able to access back issues through your library and save giving them your cc info.
posted by SoftRain at 5:42 PM on November 27, 2005

IMDB of course has some data for Metropolis but the dates listed are for 2002 and 2003 so perhaps that was for a special screening of it. Although, the gross listed there ($650,422) does seem more or less in line with the general amount you might expect for the 30s... I say that because this site lists Modern Times (1936) as grossing $1,400,000 at the time. has some data on movies in the 30s but it's very scant and I don't see anything by Fritz Lang.

boxofficemojo was the first site I looked at, but they don't seem to have much data that far back except in the top grossing of all time tables. They imply that you have access to more with the paid premiere account but it still looks like that only has full data back to 1982 and bits and pieces from there back.


Maybe the data just was never collected very carefully, or it's not on the web. This page seems to have a boatload of Lang information but nothing about the amount of ticket sales.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:21 PM on November 27, 2005

Be wary of any numbers you actually find. Promoters and studios were notorious for inflating box-office numbers.
posted by goatdog at 6:37 PM on November 27, 2005

You've asked the $64,000,000 question, and many a film scholar would love to know the answer to this one, as well. The fact is that, for the most part, reliable box office figures before a certain date simply do not exist. Unfortunately, these figures are extremely important - sometimes vital. So there are a few things you can do, none of them ideal.

As SoftRain suggests, Variety is a good source. Use imdb to find out when (month/week/day) the films you're interested in were released, and then find Variety (on microfilm in a good library) starting one or two weeks before that date and continuing on for several weeks afterward. There are several problems, though:
1. In the silent and early sound era, few films had single national release dates. They'd play in Buffalo and Peoria several weeks after their NY and LA debuts.
2. Moreover, Variety's weekly tallies of box-office receipts was generally handled city-by-city, meaning that you can easily tell how well a film did in Buffalo on a certain week, but that does not take into account Detroit, or Sacramento, or most other cities in the country - Variety doesn't have reports from everywhere.
3. To my continuing consternation, Variety keeps track of weekly box-office reports, but, maddeningly, NOT annual box-office figures. All they had to do was add up the numbers! But no.
The result of all this is that you can get a good (almost exact) idea of how well a single movie did in a single city on a single week, but you'll have a helluva time extrapolating that into any sort of national/annual basis. The best way to deal with this is, I think, to pick a few representative cities (NY, LA, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore) and chart the movie's progress in these cities over a few weeks, or the entire course of its release in those towns. (You should pick the major, most "important" cities because Variety does not always report on the same cities every week. They might report on Kansas City one week, but not the next, e.g.) This involves a lot of microfilm-reading, and that can break your eyeballs. Beware.
So, yeah, extrapolate as best you can from the film's performance in those cities on those dates, and qualify your research with an apologetic footnote. Best we can do.

You should also look at the year-end issues of Variety (which occasionally were printed in November or January), which sometimes, but not always, list the biggest movies of the year. However, these figures are generally not reliable, as there was no network of exhibitor-correspondence in place to provide the press with solid estimates. These year-end issues do have lists of the top 10 or 20 male and female stars, which ranks are based on the stars' films' ticket sales. Sometimes, these lists can be helpful, depending on what kind of films you're studying.

On a similar note, check out the Film Daily yearbooks, as they'll often contain exhibitors' picks for the best ticket-selling movies of the year. These are great resources. There are a number of periodicals specific to the exhibition industry, as well, though their names slip my mind at the moment. Exhibitors Weekly, perhaps? Again, imprecise, sometimes anecdotal figures here, but it's a start, and at least you can see whether a movie is doing well or badly.

Other magazines are useful, too: Moving Picture World, Motion Picture Almanac, The Hollywood Reporter. Again, though, it's a crapshoot.

Not sure what kind of project you're working on or what kind of time you have, but many box-office-related questions can only be answered by a trip to an archive, such as the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. If this is what you need to do, but have never done it before, you can go ahead and email me and I can take you through the process.

One more thing that just occurred to me is that, a few years ago, Tom Gunning wrote a very thick and detailed book (which I have not read) about Fritz Lang. Here it is. Gunning is a very thorough researcher, and I'm sure (or, at least, I hope) he dealt with questions of box-office reports for Lang's films. You might consult this book and see if it addresses your questions.

Patrick McGilligan, as you probably know, also wrote a book on Lang, but McGilligan is, in my opinion, not a very good scholar, and tends not to be interested in questions such as yours. However, you might take a look at his book and prove me wrong.

Good luck! This is a continually vexing question for us film scholars. Please report back and let us know if you find what you're looking for!

(on preview: goatdog couldn't be more correct: the numbers are often plain lies. However, they're all we have to go on at all, unless you go digging in archives. Which is fun but time-consuming. So, yes, take any numbers you find with several large chunks of salt.)
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:49 PM on November 27, 2005

The Numbers has reported numbers that go back as early as 1915... but their movie lists are relatively small (ie 1933 has 3 movies). Interesting nonetheless.
posted by antifuse at 4:10 AM on November 28, 2005

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