What Measures Cultural Relevance? The AO3 Fics/Box Office Algorithm

AO3 Box Office Avatar Avengers Endgame

What measures cultural relevance for a film? One Twitter user proposes that it’s the number of fanfics on AO3 that could reveal an accurate measure, and not the box office gross.

The original tweet on the AO3 vs Box Office Gross discussion comes from 2018, back when Avatar was the highest-grossing movie of all time, though the tweet has been making the rounds again recently. A year after the initial tweet was made, Avengers: Endgame would take that top box office spot, and then Avatar would have a re-release and subsequently reclaim it (which is a sketchy move, but it is what it is). So here we are again, with Avatar on top just like it was back in 2018 when the tweet was made, and it still makes a shockingly good point.

Do box office numbers really measure how culturally relevant the film is? Does the gross give any indication that the film is having an impact on wider society at all? No, it doesn’t, says Twitter user Jordan Keagle. The true measure comes when comparing box office numbers to fanfic count on AO3. When that equation is used, Avatar is shockingly irrelevant. 

Since this tweet was made, there’s been a few more fics added to the Avatar category on AO3. There are currently 279 fics listed, but many of them are mislabeled from Avatar: The Last Airbender, so the true number is actually much less. As I don’t want to sort through 279 fics to find out which ones are accurate, I’m going to run with the new number and come up with our current benchmark for cultural relevance: $10,043,010 per fanfic.

With that in mind, let’s compare some other films and see how they stack up.

Avengers: Endgame

Let’s start with Avatar’s biggest competitor at the box office. I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that this film is far more culturally relevant. Just how much so, though, is staggering when using this specific metric. Just this one film alone is 10x more relevant.

Gross: $2,797,501,328
AO3: 1739
$1,608,683 per fic

Marvel Cinematic Universe

That’s a tricky one to measure, though, because most Endgame fic on AO3 includes details from many MCU films, so let’s look at it as all one batch. When the stats from the entirety of the MCU is taken into account, it’s roughly 175x as relevant, which feels pretty correct from where I’m standing.

Gross: $22.5 Billion
AO3: 392,965
$57,257 per fic

Justice League

And now, just for fun, let’s take a peek at DC’s answer to Marvel’s box office domination for a moment. When standing alone, it’s still much more relevant than Avatar, but also surprisingly more relevant than Endgame on its own, but weak when compared to the MCU overall. Very interesting numbers here, honestly.

Gross: $657,926,987
AO3: 1489
$441,858 per fic


And just for laughs, let’s look at my current hyperfixation, Venom, because this movie and the resulting fandom are all that’s on my mind right now (disclaimer, one of these fics is mine). It is, surprisingly, even more relevant than Justice League, and way more so than Avatar. I didn’t see this one coming, but I guess I shouldn’t be terribly surprised.

Gross: $856,085,151
AO3: 4269
$200,535 per fic

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

If you think it’s unfair to compare a film from 2009 to films from the late 2010s, don’t worry.  I pulled this film from the same year. The cultural relevance still tracks. The Sherlock film was pretty huge at the time, but was obviously beaten by Avatar at the box office. Fic shows a different impact.

Gross: $524,028,679
AO3: 2087
$251,091 per fic

Batman (Nolan Films)

And let’s go back to 2008 (and the subsequent sequels the following years), just to be fair and have more than one reference point from the same era. Popular films from this era seem to be in the same ballpark of ~$200k per fic.

Gross: $1.1 Billion
AO3: 4043
$272,075 per fic

The Mummy

Still not satisfied with the comparison?  Let’s go waaaay back to 1999 to a film that is still kicking around today, but isn’t part of any major franchises. This film predated AO3 by 9 years, didn’t have a built-in fandom, and yet it still blows Avatar out of the water.

Gross: $415,933,406
AO3:  567
$733,568 per fic

This metric has been a fun one to use, with many fans stacking up their own favorite fandoms to Avatar to see just how it compares.

I’m sure this metric will get a lot of pushback, and that’s fine. This isn’t an entirely serious analysis, so you aren’t going to find me saying this is the only metric to measure relevance at all. Fanfic writers are one small part of the wider pop culture conversation, but it does, at the very least, give us a look at how much buzz these properties get among the fanatical fan culture that’s taken a powerful foothold online. We’re also largely women and largely queer, which are demographics that are largely ignored in conversations about culture, so the fact that this metric may not line up with established metrics (box office numbers) perhaps isn’t entirely that surprising.

If one wanted to step away from this metric and focus on, say, merchandise sales or social media mentions or something like that, my guess is that Avatar would trail behind all of these films on that front as well. Perhaps those metrics would account for a broader look at gender and sexuality statistics, and would therefore be taken more seriously by anyone who wants to push back against fanfic as being remotely relevant to broader culture. If one wants to choose a different metric and do a deep dive, I’m all for it! Please share your results because I’m dying to know.

But to make a long story short (too late?), box office gross isn’t an accurate metric for impact on the overall cultural zeitgeist of our time, and we should stop assuming that that’s what those numbers mean. It simply measures the numbers of tickets sold, and not how the content influences us as a society, or the larger conversations that result from it. This fun little metric is a glimpse at how one could measure that in a quantifiable way using one specific aspect of pop culture, and it’s incredibly fun to look at.

How does your favorite movie stack up?  Share your films stats below! Or, if you chose a different metric, please share those details too. Remember to show your work or you’ll only receive partial credit.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They identify as queer.

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