D. W. Griffith’s evil, racist filmThe Birth of a Nation is widely regarded as the most popular silent movie ever made. I believe this reputation is based on a misinterpretation of its box office records.
But it made its extraordinary gross mostly because of its unique release strategy and extraordinarily high ticket prices — not because it was extraordinarily popular.
Most movies of the 1910s were distributed the way they are now. A studio would rent prints to theaters across the country, and those theaters would split the box office revenue with the studio.
In 1915, there were more than 10,000 theaters across the country, and the average ticket price for a movie was between 10¢ and 15¢.
But Birth of a Nation charged $2 for most seats, sixteen times what movie-goers were used to paying. That’s the equivalent of a theater charging $148 a ticket today.
How did it get away with this?
The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first film to charge such high prices. Tickets for the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria ranged from 25¢ to $2. So it followed that film’s successful pattern.
The producers told the public this was no ordinary movie. This movie was a spectacle — a film that could only be appreciated in a particular type of quality theater — at quality prices.
The studio built up a tremendous amount of advance buzz, with screenings in Los Angeles and at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. Then for its first few years of release, Birth of a Nation was shown only in upscale locations like New York’s Liberty Theater and similar places in San Francisco and Los Angeles. By January 1916, it had been distributed to only twelve locations but had sold more than $2 million in tickets.
The producers eventually did lower their standards for qualifying theaters (unofficially, of course!), and the film gained wider distribution in larger and mid-size cities across the country. Ticket prices weren’t always $2, but they were still much higher than tickets for the other movies playing in town.
So The Birth of a Nation made more money than most silent films by selling fewer actual tickets.
It’s impossible to know precisely how many tickets The Birth of a Nation sold. Many reports have grossly exaggerated its popularity — but we do have some contemporary estimates.
In August 1915, the New York Press estimated 400,000 people had seen the film. By February 1916, people had purchased an estimated 5 million tickets. By June 1917, the number was up to 10 million.
Ticket sales began to slow at this point, but they continued to trickle in. All tickets from 1915 to 1927 were between 25¢ and $2, with most on the higher end. If we estimate an average of $1 a ticket, we find the film sold 18 million tickets by the end of the silent era.
The 1914 Western The Spoilers sold an estimated 17.5 million tickets in its first year; a re-release sold about 13.3 million more.
Popular? Very. But it’s not the unparalleled hit many historians make it out to be.
SOURCES: Block, Alex Ben., and Lucy Autrey Wilson. George Lucas Blockbusting: a Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies, Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. New York: ItBooks, 2010. https://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN9780061963452.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.