Industrywide, box office receipts totaled almost $6.9 billion as of last weekend, only slightly behind the same point last year, when movies went on to take in a record $9.7 billion, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media by Numbers.
What studios don't talk about is how many people actually show up in the theaters - a number Hollywood may see good reason not to track.
In fact, adjusted for a rise in the average ticket price, attendance is down almost 5 percent this year.
But America's love affair with the movies is now written in the language of box office, numbers that once interested only studio accountants as a measure of whether a film would pay for itself. The figures have become some moviegoers' proxy for cultural worth.
Hollywood isn't likely to correct the disconnect because studios have seen the power of the dollar figures. They can slap "No. 1 Movie in America" banners on their films, knowing that being near the top of the list in its opening weekend can mean life or death for a movie.
"It used to be movies people talked about would be the top 10; then it was the top five; now, most of the sound bites you hear are about the top three," said Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. "If you're the number one film in a given weekend, you get the most free hits publicity-wise."
Considering that the $7.16 today's average moviegoer paid to see "The Dark Knight" could have bought three tickets to "Star Wars" in 1977, what does that box office gross number say about a movie's popularity?
Very little, Dergarabedian said.
"I get more e-mails on this subject by laypeople," he said. "The general public picks up very quickly that if a movie makes $100 million in 2008 versus 1998 that's going to be a different animal; that's not going to be an apples-to-apples comparison. However, people are fixated on dollar amounts."
Dividing the total gross by the average ticket price, determined by the Motion Picture Association of America, major studio trade group, Dergarabedian estimated "The Dark Knight" has sold 72.3 million tickets. By comparison, an estimated 169.5 million tickets were sold for "Star Wars," adjusting for ticket prices in 1977 and again in each of the five years when the movie has been rereleased.
Applying the average ticket price at a film's release dramatically changes the ranking of the 20 highest-grossing films. "The Dark Knight" becomes No. 8, for instance, slightly ahead of 2004's "Shrek 2," which sold an estimated 70.2 million tickets.
Those estimates are admittedly inexact. Dergarabedian said films rated G and PG - including "Shrek 2" - could be undercounted because they are seen by more children, whose tickets typically cost less than average. Conversely, films rated PG-13 or R, whose audience is largely adult and pays higher ticket prices, could be overcounted.
A movie's total revenue and ultimate popularity also depend more these days on factors beyond its domestic theatrical release. Overseas receipts and DVD sales add significantly to the bottom line.
The focus on box office gross has developed over the past 30 years largely with the rise of big summer action films and studio efforts to keep the buzz going as long as possible, experts said.
"I think this whole perception changed when Hollywood discovered the box office as a marketing tool," said Andreas Fuchs, a California-based consultant and analyst to the exhibitor industry, adding it was only recently that newspaper and television ads for a film began proclaiming it the "No. 1 Movie in America." "I think that was really a turning point, when this entire 'hit parade' mentality took over the movies."
In parts of Europe, Fuchs said, films are still tracked and rewarded based on the number of tickets sold.
"If you're comparing the actual people, this comparison clearly is timeless because 5 million people in 1960 is the same number of people in 2008," Fuchs said.
Elizabeth Kaltman, vice president of corporate communications for the Motion Picture Association of America, said box office gross is a benchmark because it's how theater chains, such as Knoxville, Tenn.'s Regal Entertainment Group and Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment Inc., report sales.
"Regardless of how many people go to the movies, the industry maintains a certain amount of health based on the box office gross," Kaltman said in an e-mail.
Attendance figures simply lack the pizazz to drive big-budget productions, said Dergarabedian.
"From a marketing standpoint, it's a lot more sexy to say, 'This movie made $100 million,' than to say, 'This movie sold 25 million tickets,"' he said. "I think a movie like 'Gone With the Wind' has probably sold more tickets than any other movie ever. But I think people relate more to money."
Dergarabedian said moviegoers are also attracted to box office gross because it allows them to feel invested in a film's success, especially if a movie they like breaks a record, as "The Dark Knight" did in its opening weekend.
"They can say, 'Hey, I was part of that. My 10 bucks was part of that $158 million,"' he said.
But Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners, said the fixation on movies earning big box office numbers can squelch demand for smaller films, reducing theaters' overall clientele. He said that happened last summer when the slew of sequels to franchises like Fantastic Four and Pirates of the Caribbean arrived.
"There's no oxygen left in the marketplace for anything else," Corcoran said.
This year, the trends are different, he said. At least 21 films already have grossed between $50 million and $100 million, compared with 23 in all of 2007.
"We have a broader range of films that are attracting audiences," he said. "That's an extremely healthy thing."