Box Office Mojo, one of, if not the most reputable source of box office statistics, has a chart of the All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation-although "All Time" sounds like a rather grandiose title considering the modern film has been around less than a hundred years.
It sounds like they've been tracking movie attendance since the "Dawn of Time" or something.
Here are the top ten entries with adjusted gross sums:
1. Gone with the Wind (1939) MGM $1,430,476,000
2. Star Wars (1977) Fox $1,261,086,700
3. The Sound of Music (1965) Fox $1,008,300,900
4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Universal $1,004,328,700
5. The Ten Commandments (1956) Paramount $927,480,000
6. Titanic Paramount $908,688,900 $600,788,188 1997
7. Jaws Universal (1975) $906,798,000
8. Doctor Zhivago MGM (1965) $878,879,000
9. The Exorcist (1973) WB $782,826,200
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Disney $771,720,000
I feel slightly odd that I have not even seen Doctor Zhivago or The Exorcist, although I have not had an overwhelming desire to see either film. Jaws, I have not seen in ages-have I even seen it all the way through? I am pleased that the original Star Wars still beats Titanic by a fairly wide margin, despite Titanic having a hire unadjusted gross. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs coming to movie theatres must have been quite the cultural event back in the day as it was the first full length animated feature. Prior to 1937, audiences saw news reels and several shorts if they ever did go to the cinema.
It is also interesting to note that in the past decade we haven't seen anything really come close to the Top 10. Titanic was the only film in over twenty years to break into the fold. And before that, the latest entry was for a film that came out in 1982.
I read recently that it may not even be possible for a film to break into this upper echelon anymore, due to the stratification of audiences through different media as well as a completely different movie culture altogether. When Titanic came out, for example, it was the movie for several months, even the year, whereas this summer, for example, saw the release of many major films, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Incredible Hulk, Indiana Jones for starters.
The kind of attention that one movie can garner in the 21st century is hindered by a saturated visual culture landscape.