OK. So James Cameron's Avatar is the all-time box office champion, and even if you adjust for inflation, it's still the #15 all-time box office champion, which is nothing to sneeze at. Everyone knows that it displaced the former #1 hit, Titanic, which was also by Cameron. But what was #1 before Titanic? Or before that? What makes all these films similar, or different? I thought it would be fun to go back over the all-time box office champs and pick them apart to see what makes them tick.

One of the very first blockbusters was The Birth of a Nation (1915), which apparently earned about $10 million back on its $100,000 budget. That was big money in those days, but that movie no longer appears on the top 100 "adjusted for inflation" chart. The next big blockbuster was Gone with the Wind (1939), which -- adjusted for inflation -- is still #1. It's a genuine phenomenon, and it still has the power to wow audiences, although it's that high on the list mainly because it was re-released every few years, earning a tidy profit on top of its profit. Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) both came close, but didn't quite make the record.