Steven Spielberg: 40 Years of Incredible Success

Throughout the history of films, there have been many directors whose movies are said to have defined a generation. Undoubtedly, a couple of films come to mind and I am willing to place money on the fact that for many of you, at least one of those is directed by Steven Spielberg. You see, Spielberg has truly defined multiple generations, not just one. I am 22 years old, my father is 43. Both of us have been watching Spielberg-directed films since before we can remember. Over his 40 year career, he has directed 28 films. While it is true that there are some relative flops and duds there, it is also undeniable that Spielberg’s filmography is packed with some of the most iconic films of the past century. But what’s truly incredible about Spielberg’s career is his sustained success. Of his 28 films, 15 made more than $100 million at the US box office, not adjusting for inflation. In a day and age where a film is only truly deemed a success if it reaches that mark, it’s pretty impressive when you consider that Spielberg has been exceeding that mark since the mid-1970’s when the average price of a movie ticket was a quarter of what it is now. Seriously. In 1975, a movie would have to sell four times as many tickets to hit $100 million in gross income than a movie in 2015.

Can you imagine what the gross income figures for Spielberg’s films would be if we adjusted them all for inflation? Well, I can because that is exactly what I did. In the chart below, you can see the domestic gross income for all 28 films Spielberg has directed, along with the domestic gross adjusted for inflation.

Steven Spielberg by the Numbers


All domestic gross figures based on data from Box Office Mojo.


So there it is in all of its data-y goodness. Let me explain my methodology for this little investigation. Thanks to Box Office Mojo, I was able to pretty quickly get the domestic gross figures for all of Spielberg’s films. The trick was deciding how to adjust for inflation. As it turns out, movie ticket prices haven’t exactly kept pace with inflation as many other goods have. With a slightly slower inflation growth, I turned to the average movie ticket price for the year that each movie was released. By dividing the domestic gross by the average US movie ticket price for that year, I had an estimate of how many tickets were sold for the movie. The last step was multiplying the approximate number of tickets sold by the average US ticket price for 2015 ($8.12). This provided me with an estimate of how much each of Spielberg’s movies would have made if they were all released in 2015. Of course, this is no exact science as this method makes a lot of assumptions. We are assuming that the same number of tickets would be sold today, most of all. But hey, all we are trying to do is give an update to a figure, not predict population behaviors. I’m no sociologist.

This adjusted domestic gross is pretty incredible when you take a good look at it. With our 2015 figures, Spielberg released two movies in seven years that would have grossed over one billion dollars in the US alone. If you are wondering, no, that’s never been done. The highest domestic gross was pulled in by Avatar, a whopping $760,507,625 unadjusted. Of course, there are a hand full of other films that have eclipsed one billion domestically when adjusted for inflation, but it’s pretty incredible that one director has two of them. Interestingly, Spielberg’s highest unadjusted domestic gross was with E.T. the Extraterrestrial all the way back in 1982 when the average ticket sold for $2.94. The next closest is Jurassic Park which released 11 years later when tickets cost nearly twice as much. Just goes to show how incredibly popular E.T. was and still is. And that reminds me, that number you see for the unadjusted domestic gross does not account for the two releases the film has seen in the past thirty years. Throw that income on there and E.T. is by far Spielberg’s biggest hit. If it had released in 2015, it would would have been halfway to Avatar’s record holding $2.7 billion total after just its US release. Numbers are crazy.

Steven Spielberg- E.T.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems

But that doesn’t belittle the massive success that many of Spielberg’s other films have had. Take a look at Jaws for example. Not many people know that Jaws was the highest grossing film of all-time, at least until Star Wars came out two years later. When we raise Jaws’ already impressive domestic total to 2015 levels, the income is massive. It came out a full seven years before E.T. but was only $100 million off of it’s pace in 2015 dollars. I use the term only in the previous sentence lightly; $100 million is an enormous sum, but this is Steven Spielberg we are talking about here. So yes, Jaws was a massive success, just not as massive as E.T. And who can forget about Raiders of the Lost Ark? If Star Wars made Harrison Ford a superstar, then playing Indiana Jones cemented his legacy as a legend. Oh, and it also made another boat load of money. In the 70’s and 80’s, Spielberg really could do no wrong. Many consider 1941 to be his worst film, but even it made a respectable amount.

Now that I’ve spent a few paragraphs talking about a few of Spielberg’s greatest successes, it only feels appropriate to talk about some of his less financially successful films. Sure, I could go on all day about how much Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones kick ass and make money, but a true measure of a director are his stumbles. Well, it probably won’t surprise you to find out that even Spielberg’s stumbles are often pretty great. We won’t mention The Sugarland Express here; it was his first film and I find that it’s often pretty unfair to judge someone on the quality and success of the first film. A lot of directors have gone on to lead incredible careers after debuting with a stinker. Anyway, by just glancing over the chart you can see some glaringly small numbers relative to the rest. The gross adjusted for inflation gives you a better understanding of how the films did. As I said, 1941’s gross income in 1979 looks small, but through the lens of modern inflation, you can see that even it would be able to manage $100 million. After that, The Twilight Zone drops down to earth after the stellar highs of E.T. However, that was an anthology film. It’s hard to blame an anthology film’s success or lack thereof on a single director. After that, it’s not until 1987’s Empire of the Sun that we see Spielberg’s first true box disappointment. While the film did nearly double it’s budget in worldwide gross, Spielberg still considered it a financial letdown. I guess it’s hard to get excited when you are accustomed to your films making the equivalent of a small country’s GDP. Say what you will about Empire of the Sun, but it was nominated for four Academy Awards; also, it introduced to the world the man who would be Batman, Christian Bale. Just because it brought in the lowest domestic gross (adjusted for inflation or otherwise) of any of Spielberg’s films, it’s not necessarily a bad movie. That’s something you should decide for yourself.

Christian-Bale-in-Empire-Of-The-Sun- Steven Spielberg


Obviously still reeling from not exploding the world with his last film’s profits, Spielberg produced the fairly forgettable Always. It wasn’t a total flop, but it wasn’t a hit critically or financially. This apparently enraged the Spielberg, and he really hasn’t made a total flop sense. Amistad and Munich may not have made a great deal of money, but both were critically lauded and nominated for multiple Academy Awards. And while it seems that Spielberg has slowed down in recent years, he still makes mad money, yo. The Adventures of TinTin and War Horse, while not entirely successful stateside, each made much more overseas. And with Lincoln, Spielberg stepped back into his award-winning ways; the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. There you go, 40 years later and Spielberg is still not only relevant, but a name that brings people to the theaters. Not many directors can or ever have been able to say that.

Maybe you don’t like Steven Spielberg. Sure, he’s made 28 movies, but not a single one of them is your style. But even if that is the case, you can’t deny his impressive success that he has been able to maintain over the past four decades. I haven’t even been alive for as long as Spielberg has been raking in millions. When you add in the incredible amount of other projects that Spielberg has worked on as a producer, his already historic resume grows. You can argue that there are more talented directors and I won’t argue with you. But I find it hard to say that Spielberg isn’t one of the greatest directors of all time. Just look at that chart one last time. 1974 to 2012 with more movies on the way over the next few years. He’s made more money than any man could ever spend. He’s given rise to some of the most popular and iconic characters and films series of all time. For forty years, Spielberg has brought generations together. That’s why he is great.

Cody Seymour

Creator of NerdSpeak. Writer, filmmaker, nerd and lover of good food.

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