The Conquest of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

So, a comment on my rather vigorous (or at least wordy) defense of fantasy, last week, prompted me to explore a hunch and dig up some box-office numbers, as an example of the triumph of Speculative Fiction, in general, and the Fantasy genre, in particular, in mainstream pop culture.  I thought I’d share the results of my “research” here.

The raw data I found at the website Box Office Mojo, which maintains an extensive database of box office receipts.  Specifically, I looked at the Overall Worldwide Box Office and the Overall Adjusted for Inflation Box Office.  (Actually, I got my original “Overall Worldwide” numbers from, which got them from Box Office Mojo, but there’s a slight discrepancy in their figures.)

I divided movies into several categories.  These categories are:

Mainstream: A Catch-all category for comedies, thrillers, dramas, documentaries, musicals, and other films set in a contemporary world, or the real-world, with no real “speculative elements”, most notably “Titanic”, “Gone with the Wind”, etc.

Science Fiction: Anything to do with aliens, spaceships, or futuristic science – basically anything you’d normally classify as Science Fiction, with the exception of “Star Wars” (which I classified separately below).

Fantasy: Any “pure”-bread fantasy, including animated films (like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) that include fantasy-based elements such as magic, dragons, and other mythical creatures or anything set in a mythological setting.

Sci-Fantasy: Movies like “Star Wars”, or “Indiana Jones and the Whatever” I classified as Sci-Fantasy, which is kind of a cross-breed of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They may have science-fiction like elements, and they may have fantasy-like elements such as magic (or the “force”) or may rely heavily on mythical structures.

Super-Hero: Movies about super-heroes, whether based on comic books or not, are a special and categorically large sub-group of Sci-Fantasy.

Family Animated: Animated family movies whose only “speculative” premise is that animals or toys can talk to each other, or something similar like that, such as “The Lion King” or “Bambi”, or “Finding Nemo”.  I struggled with whether to categorize “Up” here or not… ultimately I did, but I could easily have classified it elsewhere.  Good Family Animated films are, in my opinion, a type of Speculative Fiction, but others will disagree.

Romantic Fantasy: Because I needed a place to put the “Twilight” sequel, and I wasn’t sure it counted as “Fantasy” per se.  Maybe it does…

Horror: You know, the kind of movie where something (something that usually doesn’t exist) is out to kill you, frequently using horrible Science-fictiony or Fantasy powers to do it.  (This can be considered separate from stalker/slasher pics where the killer is an ordinary human – that’s mainstream.)

Other Speculative: Movies that have a clearly “speculative fiction” premise but which are hard to categorize as any of the other speculative genres – stuff like “The Da Vinci Code”.  It’s still speculative fiction, but what kind, precisely, I’m not sure.

Other: Because I had no idea how to classify “The Passion of the Christ”.

So, you can see the lists of movies by following the link to Box Office Mojo.  What I’ll share here are the results after my classifications.  I had to narrow my field to the top 50 movies, because I didn’t have time to look at any more than that. 

Looking only at raw Box Office, Fantasy comes out the clear winner.  Looking only at the top 25 movies, 12 of them are fantasy movies – nearly half!  And those twelve movies brought in $11 BILLION.  Science Fiction films brought in another $4.5 Billion, and Super Hero and Sci-Fantasy movies another $6 Billion.  In the top 25 movies, there is only ONE mainstream movie, totalling $1.8 Billion, and that was “Titanic”.  At this point, I was curious, so I expanded my search to the top 50 movies.

Of the top 50 movies, 39 are some variety of Speculative Fiction (or, including the Family Animated segment, 46 movies).  Of these, Fantasy movies are still the largest segments, accounting for 17 of the top-50 movies and $15 Billion in box-office receipts.  Science Fiction films are the second-largest category, with 7 films taking $7.3 Billion.  All-told, Speculative Fiction movies of one stripe or another account for $34 Billion, out of about $43 Billion from all of the top-50.  (Again, if you count all Family Animated movies, this comes to $39 out of the $43).

But then, I grew concerned (me being an MBA and all) that these numbers weren’t a fair comparison, since yesterday’s movie ticket (and yesterday’s dollar) were worth less in straight dollar terms.  So I turned to the inflation-adjusted figures for the top-50 movies.  Here, we see a very different picture, on two fronts.   The first difference we see is that the largest category shifts from Fantasy to Mainstream movies, with 18 mainstream movies making up $12.8 Billion out of $35 Billion for the top-50 (with “Gone with the Wind” displacing “Avatar” as the top movie, “Avatar” dropping to #14, and “Star Wars” rising as the highest-grossing speculative fiction movie).  Sci-Fantasy becomes the largest speculative fiction category (driven by the Star Wars flicks), followed by Science Fiction movies and then Fantasy movies.  Fantasy is the fourth-largest overall category in inflation-adjusted terms.  However, we still find, even in this examination, that Speculative Fiction movies make up the largest segment of the biggest box-office earners, for 27 of the 50 movies (or 32 of them, counting the Family Animated group).

Another interesting point leaps out at us as well, in these two examinations.  Looking at the unadjusted numbers, we see movie after movie made from 1999 and into the 2000s.  In fact, the oldest movie on this list is “Star Wars”, released in 1977.  From there, we leap to 1982 with “E.T.”, then “Jurassic Park” in ’93, “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump” in ’94.  We see a small cluster there in the latter-half of the 90s.  But 40 of the top-50 in this list were released in the 2000s.  This comes as no surprise (because movie ticket prices were higher in the 2000s than before).  But we see that nearly all of the top movies in this past decade have been some variety of Speculative Fiction (leaning heavily toward Fantasy).

But if we look at the inflation-adjusted figures, the oldest movie is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (a Fantasy, FWIW) from 1937, followed by “Gone with the Wind” from 1939.  What’s interesting is that in this list is that we see a cluster of big movies in the 1960s and 1970s, with big box-office movies declining slowly since then.

There’s an interesting trend buried under the surface here.  First, it looks like the Baby Boom generation loved movies ever-so-slightly more than the current generation.  But they didn’t love Speculative Fiction movies quite as much as modern movie-goers.  If you’re making a movie today, however, your best bet is to make a Fantasy movie, or a movie in one of the other Speculative Fiction genres.  Because over time, movie-goer preferences have shifted away from Mainstream movies and toward Speculative Fiction (and Fantasy in particular) in a big way.

At first, when I looked at the Inflation-adjusted numbers, I thought it was a pretty significant counter-argument to my hypothesis that we nerds (i.e. the fans and consumers of speculative fiction) had won the “Culture Wars”.  But when I considered this trend, I realized my hypothesis was still evidently true.  The mainstream of the 1960s and 70s was mostly what it was: the mainstream.  But the mainstream of the 90s and 2000s is a new and different beast.

[Disclaimer: My figures were updated as of May 20, 2010]