Skyfall notched up an impressive box office as the first billion dollar Bond film and was widely reported as the top grossing James Bond movie of all time.
The trouble with reporting straight box office figures though is that it only tells a small part of the story. For example, when the box office takings for the other films is adjusted for inflation it tells a markedly different story. When adjusted to 2012 figures, Thunderball was a billion dollar film too.
However, even inflation adjusted figures fail to tell the complete story. In this article I want to explore the topic in a bit more detail and identify the most successful James Bond films on a number of different measures.
Box office figures
The figures from the table below are taken from The Numbers. Throughout this article the big assumption is that figures reported on third party websites are correct; if they’re not exact, they are likely to be pretty close. This doesn’t really tell us much other than the general trend is up and that Skyfall grossed more than any other Bond film (and SPECTRE fared less well). What it fails to account for are the effects of inflation on those figures, underlined when you simply look at how the budgets have climbed over the years.
To give a clearer idea of the amounts each film grossed at the box office, domestic and worldwide takings were adjusted for inflation using the US Inflation Calculator and ranked in order. This gives a very different picture of how each film performed at the box office.
Domestic box office
On this basis Thunderball remains the top grossing Bond movie at the domestic US box office when adjusted for inflation, followed by Goldfinger and Skyfall. SPECTRE didn’t do too badly, making it to eighth place, ahead of Casino Royale but behind Die Another Day.
Worldwide box office
Globally Skyfall is in the number 1 spot, perhaps due to the massive Chinese market, with Thunderball trailing slightly and then Goldfinger and SPECTRE in fourth.
While the gross box office takings may be one measure of success, they are unlikely to impress anyone in business. The real question is how many dollars you make for each dollar invested. A billion dollar box office sounds impressive, unless the cost of the movie so high the studio made no profit.
And so a better measure of success is to measure Return On Investment (ROI). The production costs are subtracted from the gross box office takings and that figure is expressed as a percentage of costs.
When you compare the ROI, the picture that emerges is very different indeed. In fact, none of the more recent films even makes it into the top half of the list. On the currently published figures, SPECTRE is third from bottom. However, it may be that the $300 million budget reported by The Numbers is revised down closer to $250 million.
Note that this doesn’t take into account the marketing budget, often said to be as large as the production budget. This article by the Hollywood Reporter mentions an average figure of $200 million in global marketing costs per movie.
Yet another measure of success is ignoring the top grossing James Bond movies and judging success on the number of people who saw each film. This we can estimate by dividing the box office gross by average ticket prices.
By using average ticket prices in the US you can determine with a fair degree of accuracy the number of people who paid to see any particular film. On that basis Thunderball remains the most popular Bond movie in the US, ahead of Goldfinger and way ahead of Skyfall, in third place. SPECTRE is mid way down the table.
More problematic is the global audience size as there are no figures published for average ticket prices worldwide. Even if there were, there are likely such variations globally that such figures would be affected by audience geography. For instance, China is now important target market, but has not been so in the past and the cost of cinema tickets in China may be quite different from that of the United States.
However, just to see what we get anyway, I’ve used the vast simplification of calculating the worldwide audience based on US average ticket prices. I’m not even sure of the magnitude of error that this creates, but be sure that the numbers are almost certainly way off. This puts the global audience of Thunderball marginally ahead of Skyfall, but in truth either could be well ahead of the other, such is the potential margin of error. By this measure SPECTRE is in fourth place, behind Goldfinger.
While Skyfall‘s $1 billion worldwide box office take is impressive, making it the first ever Bond film to breach that barrier, it is a poor measure of success. When the figures are adjusted for inflation, Skyfall is in third place domestically, behind Thunderball and Goldfinger, although globally it is just ahead of Thunderball thanks to expanding markets such as China.
In terms of audience size, Skyfall is well behind Thunderball and Goldfinger in the US, which is the only market we can measure the audience with any degree of accuracy.
But in terms of Return On Investment there is one film that has never been beaten. Dr No launched the James Bond series with an incredible 5857% ROI. Compare that with Skyfall‘s 455% ROI, which looks like a failure in comparison.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 15th July 2015.