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That's What I Call Movies: The Hits of '73

To give the impending Smackdown some context we're looking at the year 1973. Here's Glenn on tickets sold...

1973 was like the end of a box-office era. While year-end charts weren’t suffocated with superheroes, CGI natural disasters, and dystopian visions of futuristic societies for a little while yet, but 1973 was as far as I can tell the last year to not have a single now-traditional effects-driven film in the top ten hits of the year. Just one year later in 1974 the end-of-year charts would include the one-two punch The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (plus Airport '75), and 1975 essentially ushered in the modern era of the blockbuster with Jaws and since then it's been a steady increase.

Here is what the top ten films of 1973 looked like.

01 THE STING $156m 
04 PAPILLON $53.3
08 LIVE AND LET DIE $35.3m
09 ROBIN HOOD $32m
10 PAPER MOON $30.9m

Just look at those films and let them sink in for a moment.

The runaway hit film of 1973 was a period-set heist movie. Then there was a religious horror film (always popular with audiences, but rarely to this extent), a nostalgic indie featuring mostly unknowns, a romance about class and marxism, a European X-rated erotic drama, a Disney kids cartoon and a black-and-white comedy set during the Great Depression. Only one franchise film (the weird Blaxploitation-themed James Bond entry Live and Let Die) is on the list, and not a single spaceship or flowing cape amongst them. 

It’s cliché and frankly rather boring to decry the so-called death of movies for adults in favour of Hollywood’s constant churn of male-centric fanboy action films. I think it misses the point in many ways, not least of which that it is predominantly adults that are making Man of Steel, Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek Into Darkness the colossal hits that they are rather than just the teenage boys that they once may have been.

Still, it’s fascinating to look at this list and compare to it today’s. It seems crazy to realise the likes of Battle of the Planet of the Apes (the fourth and worst sequel), Soylent Green and Westworld were all beaten at the box office rather handily by Paper Moon, but let’s not pretend that the kids and their comic book and Young Adult adaptations are the ones to blame for the disparity of 1973’s Oscar best picture being no. 1 of the year and 2013’s (12 Years a Slave) ranking at no. 62 beneath adult-targeted films like Last Vegas, A Good Day to Die Hard and Now You See Me.

 For what it’s worth, the top film at the box office 41 years ago was Enter the Dragon  which was released not even a whole week after the death of its now iconic star Bruce Lee. It held the number one spot for four weekends.

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Reader Comments (14)

Nathaniel: Where are you getting your week-to-week data from 1973? I'm curious.

Good post. The '70s box office that always stuns me is "Cuckoo's Nest." A small, dark, character-driven film about a bunch of misfits in an insane asylum. Today it would be released by IFC in 100-200 theaters and gross $10 million, if lucky. In 1975, it was the second-highest-grossing film of the year after "Jaws."

Two words, and we all know what they are: home entertainment. In 1975, if you wanted to see the movie that won all four major awards for the first time since "It Happened One Night," you had to go to the theater.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

That list just makes me want to weep. Why can't things be like that now? Boo hoo. Oh well. I can remember seeing The Sting and Papillon in the theater with my uber-conservative Mormon parents, so even they were feeling a little frisky and daring in those years.

That top five is downright shocking to me. The Sting is a period piece with a lot of depressing parts and even older style music (from the 1910s). Could it even get made today? The Way We Were discusses big ideas amongst the relatively timid sexual episodes. Paper Moon is a black and white sorta comedy about the Depression with one big star and that's about it.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

The list still had a couple of actiony titles but on the whole grown up movies and the action ones were always a mix back then. I have nothing against a good popcorn movie, but a mixture of the two again would be nice.

One of the things that helped propel The Sting to the top was the unexpected success of Scott Joplin's theme music. It was EVERYWHERE you turned that year. The re-teaming of Newman and Redford didn't hurt either.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Erik - i'm not sure where Glenn (who wrote this) pulled the numbers but years prior to the 90s are regularly hard to get accurate information on. You'll find slightly varied top ten lists for every year from different sources but the point still remains that people had a much broader range of stuff they would see in the movie theaters.

also i'm not sure about Robin Hood being in the top ten because what happens with disney charts from old years is they almost always include rereleases which technically shouldn't count in getting a snapshot of a film year. Of course the rereleases were also vhs/ dvd culture

Joel6 -- and of course Robert Redford was at the peak of his bankability. Everything was a huge hit.

July 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The figures come from a mix of Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, and good ol' wikipedia. These are generally accepted figures. Wikipedia also has a list of all the number one movies in America for many years, although full top tens are much harder to come by.

Here, for instance, is a sketchy look at the year's releases (Figures for Graffiti, Exorcist, and Way We Were appear different, but that may be because of releases - but really, who can tell. You gotta go with one figure or else you'd chase your tail for hours trying to figure it out) - http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/year/1973.

Joel6, the "actiony" titles. Well, Magnum Force likely wouldn't be made today since it's so procedural. Unless it was Eastwood, but once he's gone I don't think anybody will be able to get films like that made and James Bond movies were still very British and not quite the sort of big budget blockbuster extravaganzas we see today. Skyfall it ain't.

It's TANGO that gets me. That movie wouldn't even make $36m in today's dollars.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

"Last Tango" was coming out right after Brando's non win for "Godfather" and legitimate porn like "Deep Throat" and "I am Curious (Yellow)" were accessible to adults.

Nostalgia for the 50's could explain "American Graffiti" "Exorcist" was based on the best-seller. For that matter, so was "Cuckoo's Nest".

And none of these films cost $200 million to make, I'm sure. Why Holllywood continues to miss the mid-level character driven films that cost little and make lots, I don't know.

July 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

The biggest change in theater attendance/tastes has to be because of the change in television. In 73, you had 3 to 5 stations with no "adult," and I mean that as non family fare (Breaking bad, Mad men and certainly nothing HBO would air) available. Movies were still cut to ribbons when aired on TV, always with tons of commercials and usually a few years after release so the only way to see it as it was intended or in any sort of context was to go to the theater. Plus, the technology was so far behind the times you really didn't get anything close to the same effect in terms of quality with home viewing.

Now, you can see anything just a few weeks after it hits the market (or simultaneously) so no need to go out. Big explosions get the kids who don't want to stay home with Mom and Dad out easiest so that is what is on offer. The market drives what the studios make and as long as Trans4mers turns in profits like it currently is, they will continue to make it and as many knock-offs as possible.

Say what you will about the theater versus home viewing experience, its a hell of a lot cheaper, more comfortable and convenient to watch at home. Plus the small community theaters have nearly all closed. When I was in high school, the nearest movie house (we got the latest releases about 8 weeks after they opened on the coasts) was 20 miles away. Now, its 70 miles. With the price of gas, theater prices, popcorn prices not to mention the time needed, going to the movies is a very expensive proposition unless you live in the city. I saw everything on that list except Tango (that would have caused a meltdown on Sunday morning and a shunning of the theater owner) locally. Now, I only see movies in the theater when I'm in NYC on business and have some time. Do I miss it? Yeah. But thanks to modern technology, I don't feel I'm missing that much of the experience.

Ah, I remember the day when we walked miles, barefoot in the snow with no food and no coat just to see Babs and Redford and Newman and Reems. We suffered for our movie going pleasure.

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

My parents saw Last Tango (and most of the rest of these). They weren't conservative Mormons, but liberals who hardly ever went to church; still, they're my parents, so the thought of them going to see that movie cracks me up. They saw it in our art theatre, which is now owned by Landmark, which was the only theatre in town that would play it, so it wasn't that widely distributed - given that, $36 million seems like a pretty phenomenal number for that movie in 1973.

This is such an outstanding10.

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Adjusted for inflation, The Sting made more money than the Avengers. I can't imagine that selling more tickets than The Avengers today, it seems insane.

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Such a great top ten list. I finally got to see The Sting in a packed cinema a couple of years ago (having seen it many times at home on my own), and the audience lapped it up. I'd love to sit in a cinema watching a new film and hear a reaction like that. Probably Skyfall was the one that came the closest recently...and, when the dust settles, that isn't half as good as The Sting.

And it makes me tingle with pleasure to think of a Bertolucci film - especially THAT one - making so much money in theatres.

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

God, I love 70s movies.

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Deborah -- right? that list is just so scrumptious. and that's only the big hits.

July 25, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"Magnum Force" was the second film (of five) in the Dirty Harry franchise

July 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

Enter The Dragon grossed 25.000.000 dollars in USA. But if it was Adjusted for inflation. So how much money it will be?

February 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEric

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