'Saturday Night Fever' Box Office Mystery Solved?
by Brandon Gray
June 20, 2002
Box Office Mojo has received quite a few emails from readers wondering why Saturday Night Fever is not listed as one of the 100 most popular movies of all time when ticket price inflation is taken into account.
After all, the seminal 1977 disco drama was listed as having grossed $139,486,124 on the unadjusted all time chart, and other pictures that came out in the same era and that made a similar amount of money such as National Lampoon's Animal House, Superman and Smokey and the Bandit did rank on the adjusted list—their grosses back then equaling well over $300 million today.
The other big question involved that $139,486,124 gross. Few movies have had as many conflicting reports of their final grosses as Saturday Night Fever. Aside from $139,486,124, the John Travolta phenomenon has been listed at $80 million, $90 million and $142.5 million among other tallies.
To clear matters up, Box Office Mojo went straight to the source—Paramount Pictures—the studio behind the picture.
Turns out that the $139,486,124 previously reported on the site may have been incorrect as were most of the other totals listed elsewhere. According to Paramount, Saturday Night Fever made $85.2 million in its initial release which kicked off on Dec. 16, 1977. Originally rated R, it was later trimmed to a PG and re-released in 1979, adding another $8.9 million to its coffers.
All told, the picture took in $94,213,184 to rank No. 260 on the unadjusted list. That would translate to around $228 million today, shy of making the cut on the adjusted chart. When compiling that chart initially, the lower gross of Fever was used—which turned out to be the most accurate—causing the discrepancy.
However, rentals for Saturday Night Fever were reported at $74.1 million in the trades. Rentals are the portion of the box office that goes back to the studios—generally representing around 50% of the gross or less. The rest goes to the exhibitors. For the $94,213,184 to be completely accurate, that would mean 78.7% of its gross went back to the studio, an unheard of cut if the rentals figure is accurate. Realistically, that $74.1 million points to a box office gross north of $150 million, and hence ticket sales high enough to make the adjusted all time list.
So the mystery hasn't quite been solved yet. What the Saturday Night confusion illustrates is how box office grosses were not tracked as thoroughly or regularly back then as they are today. Records are too incomplete prior to the year of 1982, and that's why weekend stats on Box Office Mojo don't go back before that year.