Most Profitable Movies of All Time

A profitable movie doesn’t just do well at the box office.

Toy Story 3, for example, is the highest-grossing movie of 2010 so far, with a worldwide take of over $600 million. However, its budget was $200 million, meaning that it has only made three times its investment. Even the mighty Titanic, the second highest grossing film of all time, could only realize a 900% return on its budget.

What follows is a list of the 15 most profitable movies of all time, based on worldwide box office receipts. These movies made back their money over and over again, and while there are some acknowledged blockbusters here, there are also those that came out of nowhere and surprised everyone with their performance at the box office.

15. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Return on investment: 1008%
Budget $111 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $1.1 billion

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a huge gamble. All three films were shot simultaneously in order to keep to the scheduled yearly release of each film. Had 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring not been successful, the studio would have still been stuck with two almost-done films to finish, promote and release, and the losses involved could have been devastating.

Luckily, there was no need to worry. Fellowship of the Ring was a huge hit, as was the follow-up, 2002’s The Two Towers . However, the final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King , was the most profitable of the three, grossing over $1.1 billion, over ten times what it cost to make it. It was also notable for winning every one of the eleven Academy Awards for which it had been nominated, matching the records set by Titanic and Ben-Hur .

14. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Return on investment: 1160%
Budget $38 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $441 million

Cross-dressing has been the subject of successful movies for years. But while Some Like it Hot won all the critical accolades and Tootsie boasted the quality writing and serious method actors, the Robin Williams vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire was the most commercially successful of all.

Since its 1993 release, the movie earned over $441 million dollars, almost twelve times its cost. Not bad for a movie whose biggest laughs come from funny voices and from a pair of prosthetic breasts catching fire.

13. There’s Something About Mary (1998)

Return on investment: 1194%
Budget $31 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $370 million

There’s Something About Mary really put the “gross” in gross revenue. The 1998 Farrelly Brothers comedy about love lost and love regained had something to offend everyone, from jokes about bodily fluids to laughs at the expense of the mentally retarded.

The movie was so raunchy that it stood a good chance of alienating audiences with its relentlessly lowbrow humor. However it was genuinely funny, and good word of mouth buoyed the movie to earnings of almost $370 million, almost twelve times its budget.

 12. The Hangover (2009)

Return on investment: 1297%
Budget $36 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $467 million

The Hangover is the ultimate tale of a bachelor party gone horribly, horribly wrong. Released in the summer of 2009, the comedy was intended to serve as comedic counter-programming to such blockbusters as Terminator Salvation and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and was given an accordingly modest budget.

Both of the blockbusters broke even, but their huge budgets made it impossible to make much of a profit. The Hangover, on the other hand, became the sleeper hit of the summer, earning over $467 million and exceeding its $35 million budget by almost thirteen times.

11. Jaws (1975)

Return on investment: 1308%
Budget $36 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $471 million

Prior to 1975, Steven Spielberg had directed four films, none of which performed that remarkably. However, his fifth film, Jaws, made him a household name. It so terrified filmgoers with its depiction of a shark’s reign of terror that it was responsible for more empty beaches than BP.

Based on the Peter Benchley book of the same name, Jaws had a relatively low budget and the constant breaking down of the mechanical shark forced Spielberg to keep it off camera for the majority of the movie. This led to the unbearable tension for which the movie is still famous and for the giddy payoff of its final reels, when we see the shark in all its glory. Word spread quickly about the terrifying new movie, and to date it has grossed over $470 million, over thirteen times its cost.

10. Ghost (1990)

Return on investment: 1446%
Budget: $35 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross Revenue: $506 million

1990’s Ghost starred Patrick Swayze as a yuppie who lives with Demi Moore, who has a passion for making pottery. When he’s murdered in a robbery attempt, his ghost enlists the help of a medium played by Whoopi Goldberg in order to find out why he was killed.

The movie was made on a modest budget, but the love story at its center resonated profoundly with audiences who went back to see the film again and again. The movie went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1990, and earned almost $506 million, over fourteen times its cost.

9. Home Alone (1990)

Return on investment: 1590%
Budget $30 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $477 million

Like most of the movies on this list, the movie that made Macaulay Culkin famous was never expected to achieve blockbuster status. But Home Alone did exactly that, and today it resides in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all time in the United States.

The movie centers around an eight year old boy who has accidentally been left home alone, while his family flies off to vacation in France. Two inept burglars menace Culkin's character but he outwits them at every turn with a series of booby traps reminiscent of those used to thwart Wile E. Coyote. The movie-going public couldn’t resist the crime-fighting machinations of the tow-haired imp, and they flooded the movie with box office earnings of almost $477 million, nearly sixteen times the movie’s budget.

8. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Return on investment: 1749%
Budget: $35 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross Revenue: $612 million

After Mel Gibson got tired of acting, he was a noteworthy director. Having previously won an Oscar for 1995’s Braveheart, he decided to get behind the camera once again for a project that was close to his heart, the story of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, and it was greeted with more than its share of controversy, from allegations of anti-Semitism to criticisms of the film’s vast oceans of gore. Nonetheless, the film struck a nerve with the untapped community of Christian moviegoers, who combined with curiosity-seekers to earn the movie almost $612 million. The movie, which is the highest grossing non-English language film of all time, earned over seventeen times its budget.

7. American Beauty (1999)

Return on investment: 1780%
Budget $20 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $356 million

Like several of the movies on this list, American Beauty was a sleeper hit. A character-driven satire about the suburban middle-class lifestyle, it starred Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening as a miserably unhappy married couple in the full throes of midlife crisis. Not exactly the sort of thing that sells a lot of tickets.

When the movie was released in 1999, it was received with nearly unanimous critical raves, and it won multiple Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. This all served to bolster its box office performance, and to date the movie has grossed over $356 million, almost eighteen times its budget.

6. Star Wars (1977)

Return on investment: 1938%
Budget $40 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross Revenue: $775 million

For over 30 years, the words Star Wars have been synonymous with lines outside of movie theaters that stretch for blocks, full of comic book collectors and gamers dressed up as Boba Fett. However, the first movie in the saga had trouble even getting made. Almost all of the major studios passed on the project, but finally 20th Century Fox took it and, not expecting much, gave it a modest budget.

The rest, as they say, is history. The film’s worldwide gross to date is over $775 million, more than nineteen times its budget. And of course, that’s to say nothing of the toy, comic and t-shirt empire the movie spawned, as well as the two sequels and three prequels, all of which continue to make money to this day.

5. Grease (1978)

Return on investment: 1975%
Budget $20 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $394 million

The 1978 movie musical Grease was based on the 1971 stage production of the same name. It starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, both of whom were major stars at the time, and the film studio had every reason to believe that they would see a good return on their small investment.

The return ended up being better than good. The movie was beloved by fans worldwide, and the soundtrack became a permanent fixture at drunken karaoke nights everywhere, whenever there were two people willing to trade parts on “Summer Lovin’.” All told, the film grossed almost $395 million, a return of almost twenty times its cost.

4. Pretty Woman (1990)

Return on investment: 2013%
Budget $23 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $463 million

1990’s Pretty Woman was the delightful tale of a wealthy businessman, played by Richard Gere, who hires a prostitute to serve as his date for a variety of business and social events. The prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, is given lessons in etiquette and table manners, while she shows the Gere character how to find his better nature.

The movie was not exactly well received by critics, but audiences didn’t care. They loved the movie and they loved the romantic chemistry between Gere and Roberts. Today the movie is regarded as a classic romantic comedy, and its ongoing status as an audience favorite has helped it earn over $463 million, a return of over twenty times on its investment.

3. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Return on investment: 2520%
Budget $15 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $378 million

At first glance, Slumdog Millionaire probably didn’t seem like it had the makings of a particularly profitable film. After all, the premise of a Bombay street urchin’s rise to fame as a game show contestant doesn’t exactly scream “huge box office success." In fact, Warner Bros. was so unconvinced about the film’s commercial prospects that the studio had considered not even giving it a theatrical release, preferring to release it directly to DVD.

However, the movie premiered at the 2008 Telluride film festival and generated very strong buzz among festival attendees. The film was given US distribution, and eight Academy Awards later, including Best Picture, it was well on its way to massive earnings. Ultimately the film made almost $378 million on its $15 million investment, a return of over twenty-five times.

2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Return on investment: 3172%
Budget: $25 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross Revenue: $793 million

Steven Spielberg was a successful director when he made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He had helmed Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, an impressive resume that virtually guaranteed a built-in audience for anything he did. But rather than use his creative blank check to make an astronomically expensive film, he made a relatively low-budget movie about a boy and his adorable alien buddy.

The film went through the roof. It experienced across-the-board success but was especially popular with children, who went back to see the movie over and over again until it was finally yanked from the cold, dead hands of the movie theaters that had been running the film for months. Its earnings of almost $793 million represented a return of almost thirty-two times on its investment, but the filmmakers weren’t the only ones who made money --- the Hershey’s Company saw its profits rise 65% due to the product placement of Reese’s Pieces in the film.

1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Return on investment: 6150%
Budget $6 million (inflation-adjusted)
Gross revenue $369 million

My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a 2002 romantic comedy that women loved and their boyfriends suffered through. The story of a Greek-American woman’s relationship with a non-Greek man and the clash of civilizations that ensues was made on a very small budget and opened in limited release. But its performance grew slowly and steadily, and the movie developed over time into a popular crowd-pleaser that far exceeded expectations.

Despite its status as a small independent film, and despite never holding the number one spot at the box office, the movie went on to earn almost $369 million, a staggering, unbelievable return of over sixty-one times on its investment. For that reason, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the most profitable film of all time.


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