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More about the BFI's 'Ultimate Film' Project

The British Film Institute (London), 27 November 2004

The aim of The Ultimate Film project is to discover and rank the most successful feature films of the sound period based on their performance at British cinemas. Documentaries, short films, and silent films are excluded.

The chart rankings reflect estimated numbers of admissions to cinemas rather than the amount of money taken at the box office. This method was felt to be a more consistent indicator of popularity across the large time period covered than box office takings, taking into account the complications of inflation and changing populations.

Compiling the list has been by no means an easy task. Prior to the 1970s, neither admissions nor box office takings were systematically recorded or published in Britain so we have had to weigh up a range of other evidence to estimate the performance of earlier films. We have delved into the collections of the BFI National Library to look at the available information and have listed below some of the key sources used. These include annual ranking lists in the industry trade papers of the time, notably Kinematograph Weekly, Films and Filming and The Motion Picture Herald list (as published in Today's Cinema/Daily Cinema). We have also referred to contemporary press reports, publicity information produced by film distributors to hail their successes and other existing research.

Further factors considered when estimating a film's performance include the type(s) of release and industry practices and audience behaviour at the time. At various times the British government has imposed minimum quotas on the number of British films to be shown at cinemas, with required quotas as high as 40% in the late 1940s. Such measures have had an impact on the type of films the public can see. The difficulties in shipping film prints across the Atlantic during World War II mean that some popular US films of that era do not chart as highly as may have been expected.

In the 1950s and 1960s the practice developed of showing some larger budget titles, usually epics and musicals, as 'Roadshow' releases. Roadshow releases would spend some considerable time playing on a small number of very large city centre screens before doing the tour of smaller venues. This led to a much longer release run, for example South Pacific played at the vast Dominion Theatre in London for four and a half years before hitting the general circuit.

The annual admissions total in the year of a film's release is also a vital piece of information in assessing it's relative performance. Films that did well in the 1940s -- when at their peak annual cinema admissions hit 1,636 million -- are much more likely to be higher placed than hit films of the 1980s when there were 95% less cinemagoers.

These factors all play a part in evaluating the performance of films in the absence of hard financial data. Ticket price is also a factor -- not just the annual average ticket price used in estimating admissions -- but also recognising that a children's film, for example, will have more admissions for the same box office takings than an 18-certificate title due to its lower average ticket price.

The stories behind the success of the Top Five films

1. Gone With The Wind - The number one film by some considerable distance, and a favourite with the public for over six decades. Prints of the film arrived in Britain in 1940 from the USA just before wartime hostilities made shipments a problem. Hugely popular with audiences for its romance, colour and spectacle, fans went to see it again and again. Remember also that in the 1940s the public could not see a favourite film on television or video at home. The only way to see it again was to go to the cinema once more. The film has been reissued in Britain at least seven times since its original release.

2. The Sound of Music - This perennial family favourite also benefited greatly at the box office from repeat viewings from its legions of fans (in the case of pensioner Alice James, a reported 121 times). It had a run at the Dominion even longer than that of South Pacific, and its initial release lasted for several years. Even now people flock to 'Sing-A-Long-A Sound of Music' screenings in London and other cities.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - Since its release in 1937, Disney's first feature has entertained generations of children and is sophisticated enough to enchant the adults that accompany them to the cinema. Disney's canny policy of tapping into new audiences and encouraging them to experience their classics in the cinema through it's re-release strategy has also played a part in the film's success.

4. Star Wars - A film that has managed to make the top five despite being released in an era when relatively few people went to the cinema. Star Wars tapped into the young, male demographic that constituted the core cinema audience of the time and transformed the film business with its new emphasis on marketing. The film fostered a community of fans with its sequels and later prequels, ensuring box office success for a second time when it was reissued in the late 1990s.

5. Spring in Park Lane - The big surprise of the chart and the top ranking British film. The four Anna Neagle titles in the chart testify to her enormous star status in the 1940s and early 1950s, when she was a byword for British virtues, and her films entertained millions looking for escapism from war and austerity. Over 20 million people saw Spring in Park Lane, the fourth title in her and director husband Herbert Wilcox's 'London' series of films characterised by a winning mixture of glamour, romance, music and light comedy.

Piecing together this information has built up a fascinating picture of audience preferences in Britain. As well as informing The Ultimate Film we hope the chart will form a basis for future research into popular film in Britain.

Top performers

The list of actors who crop up most regularly in the chart makes for interesting reading, with the big names of Hollywood largely absent. Character actors who have played small parts in long-running film series dominate ahead of stars in leading roles. Bernard Lee played the role of 'M' in several James Bond films, and these appearances in combination with those in three earlier British classics make him the most-featured actor in the chart. Other Bond regulars Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) and Desmond Llewellyn ('Q') feature prominently.

Also highly-ranked are a number of Star Wars regulars including one noteworthy Hollywood actor - James Earl Jones - who features in a total of four films, yet is only heard but never seen on screen. Appearing incognito has also brought success for other members of the Star Wars cast, Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Frank Oz (Yoda) and David Prowse who played Darth Vader on screen, the part for which Jones provided the distinctive voice.

Most-featured actors

9 films:

  • Bernard Lee (The Blue Lamp, The Courtneys of Curzon Street, Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Third Man, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice)

6 films:

  • Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence of Arabia, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars)
  • Lois Maxwell (Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice)

5 films:

  • Kenny Baker (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars, Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones)
  • Anthony Daniels (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars, Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones)
  • Desmond Llewelyn (Goldfinger, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice)
  • Frank Oz (The Empire Strikes Back, Monsters, Inc. [voice], Return of the Jedi, Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones)

4 films:

  • Hugh Grant (Bridget Jones's Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill)
  • Richard Harris (Gladiator, The Guns of Navarone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
  • Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur, The Big Country, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments)
  • James Earl Jones (The Empire Strikes Back [voice], The Lion King [voice], Return of the Jedi [voice], Star Wars [voice])
  • Anna Neagle (The Courtneys of Curzon Street, I Live in Grosvenor Square, Piccadilly Incident, Spring in Park Lane)
  • David Prowse (A Clockwork Orange, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars)

Most-featured directors

4 films:

  • Lewis Gilbert (Moonraker, Reach for the Sky, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice)
  • Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Jurassic Park [additionally executive producer for Men in Black])
  • Herbert Wilcox (The Courtneys of Curzon Street, I Live in Grosvenor Square, Piccadilly Incident, Spring in Park Lane)
  • William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Country, Mrs Miniver)

3 films:

  • Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring, Lord of the Rings The Return of the King, Lord of the Rings The Two Towers)
  • David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia [additionally editor for 49th Parallel])
  • George Lucas (Star Wars, Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones [additionally executive producer for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi])
  • Hamilton Luske (Cinderella, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Pinocchio)

2 films:

  • Frank Capra (Lost Horizon, Mr Deeds Goes to Town)
  • Chris Columbus (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)
  • Cecil B. DeMille (The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments)
  • Clyde Geronimi (Cinderella, One Hundred and One Dalmatians)
  • Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Live and Let Die)
  • David Hand (Bambi, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
  • John Lasseter (A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 [additionally executive producer for Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.])
  • Carol Reed (Oliver!, The Third Man)
  • Wolfgang Reitherm (The Jungle Book, One Hundred and One Dalmatians)

Where are they?

High-profile favourites that did not make it onto the list include The Wizard of Oz (US 1939), Casablanca (US 1942), Singin' in the Rain (US 1952), The Great Escape (US 1963) and the Indiana Jones series of the 1980s.

Neither do any of the following stars feature: Katharine Hepburn, Laurel & Hardy, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Robert de Niro, Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood or Tom Cruise. Tom Hanks makes only a disembodied appearance as the voice of Woody in Toy Story 2.

Notable directors not featured include John Ford, Howard Hawks, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. And tellingly for the nature of the film industry, there is only a single film amongst the hundred directed by a woman - Bridget Jones's Diary directed by Sharon Maguire.

There is an absence of 'world cinema' on the list and it is no great surprise that no foreign language films feature. Indeed, the only film found that is not a majority US or British production is Crocodile Dundee -- a primarily Australian film -- but even so credited as an Australian/US co-production.


The chart is well-stocked with children's and family films and there are only five titles on the list that have been rated by the British Board of Film Classification as either 'X' (introduced in 1951 to exclude under-16s and upgraded to exclude under-18s in 1970) or '18' (replacing 'X' in 1982). It is more difficult for 'X' or '18'-rated films to become huge box office hits due to their smaller potential audiences. The five films that defy this disadvantage are The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Saturday Night Fever and The Exorcist. Saturday Night Fever did, though, benefit at the box office from a subsequent re-cut and re-release with an 'A' certificate (an advisory rating for films containing material perhaps unsuitable for under-14s). It is interesting to observe that these five 'X' titles were all released between 1972 and 1978.

Beyond the Frame

The Ultimate Film chart excludes silent films and documentaries, but there have been huge box office successes in these areas of film-making. A Queen is Crowned (GB 1953) -- a feature documentary record of the Queen's coronation in colour -- was thought to be the most widely-seen film of 1953 with the majority of cinemas in Britain screening it on its release. Released during World War I, the silent film The Battle of the Somme (GB 1916) became the most successful film of its era in Britain, with estimates of over 20 million attendances and suggestions that it may have been seen by the majority of the population. Other successful films of the silent era include an early version of Ben Hur (US 1925), The Big Parade (US 1925), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (US 1921), starring Rudolph Valentino, and Charlie Chaplin hits The Kid (US 1921), The Gold Rush (US 1925) and City Lights (US 1931).

Read "BFI releases definitive list of of the top 100 most-seen films".

See The BFI's Ultimate Film List.

2004 The British Film Institute

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