As long as we continue to enjoy the peculiar sensation of gathering with a bunch of strangers in a darkened theater, film will still matter. Film matters because we use it to tell stories about who we are, what makes us human, and what concerns us in the everyday. It matters because it offers us a language to speak to each other across national, class, economic and racial lines. Film is a phenomenon that allows us to understand cultures and people…
Yet sometimes, all we want from film is to see Hollywood wiping its ass with a lousy tentpole script, some dreadful CGI, a trillion dollar action sequence, and the endearing cheesiness of a film that has no idea how mainstream it really is: What could be better that a big budget blockbuster? As expected, the ranking of the highest grossing movies of all time is riddled with the Mega Movie.
In fact, movies seem to break the fabled billion-dollar mark all the time these days – the following 10 highest grossing movies of all time certainly do. So, without further ado, here are the top 10 heavyweight, box office champions of theater. (All amounts are in USD, and current at the time of publishing).
10. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Director: Bill Condon
Condon’s faithful live action recasting of the Disney classic enchanted box office audiences from the get go. The Emma Watson and Dan Stevens-starring film went all out on spectacle, earning itself widespread acclaim. You’d expect so, too, given the film’s $160 million budget.
However, Beauty and the Beast did receive widespread controversy before its release, over what was called a “gay moment.” It was even banned by a cinema in Alabama because of the scene. Clearly, that controversy didn’t hinder the film’s sweeping success and ridiculous profit.
9. Frozen (2013)
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Frozen wasn’t just a spectacular box office money-spinner. It’s also reportedly the biggest merchandise cash cow of all time, with sales of more than $107 billion. Upon winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film, Frozen also became the first full-length Disney (non-Pixar) animated feature to win this award, after four previous nominations.
All of this success might be attributed to the fact that, despite being an animated movie with limitless possibilities, Frozen has an incredibly traditional Disney fairytale plot. There are princesses, dead parents, eternal winters, terminal illnesses that can only be cured by love and many, many horribly sincere songs.
8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Director: David Yates
Making box office magic for the last time, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 saw Harry, Ron and Hermione search for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes in their effort to destroy the Dark Lord. There were plenty of signs indicating enormous commercial success for the final Harry Potter film, but even so, the numbers went beyond industry predictions.
Other movies at the box office suffered huge deficits thanks to drastic reductions in screen counts as everything budged up to make way for Potter. In an industry where there is traditionally no such thing as a surefire hit, the films of Rowling’s books definitely proved the exception.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Director: Joss Whedon
Whedon went all out on his Avengers sequel – and worked insanely hard to make sure Age of Ultron had the most visual effects shots for any Marvel movie to date, with over 3,000. The director commented that while directing the movie was exhausting, he’d still be interested in directing other superhero films in the future…
That doesn’t really surprise us, given how much dollar Avengers: Age of Ultron raked in: The superhero blockbuster passed the magic $1 billion mark at the global box office after opening with a gargantuan haul of $156.3m over its first six days in China.
6. Furious 7 (2015)
Director: James Wan
Production on Furious 7 was halted on December 1, 2013, following the death of Paul Walker, who was killed in a car crash on November 30, 2013.
Director Wan and Universal executives held a conference call to determine how to proceed with the production in a manner respectful to Walker’s memory. Although there was reportedly some consideration about scrapping the film altogether, Furious 7 eventually resumed production and gave Paul’s character “a proper send-off,” much to the delight of Fast and the Furious fans and – call us cynical, here – Universal’s bank balance.
5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Banknotes assemble! In the first Marvel film to earn $1 billion, Earth’s mightiest heroes came together to learn to fight as a team, in order to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.
The Marvel Comics films have proved such moneymakers in large part because they play well internationally, but the fact that Academy Award nominees Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Joss Whedon, and Seamus McGarvey were on board for The Avengers couldn’t have hurt the box office profits for this flick.
4. Jurassic World (2015)
Director: Colin Trevorrow
The story idea for Jurassic World came from Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Mark Protosevich, who got together privately on several occasions to discuss the notion of doing another installment in the Jurassic Park franchise.
Of course, this is a movie that was always going to rake in the ticket sales. Yet, what Jurassic World gained in size, it lost in terms of plot and character chemistry. The result was a mega blockbuster that ate the box office alive, but remained kinda all bark and no bite.
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Director: J.J. Abrams
After publicly declining to direct a new Star Wars film, Abrams was visited at his Bad Robot office by hotshot producer Kathleen Kennedy. Their negotiations lasted over a month, during which time, Abrams’ central concern was the vast magnitude and cultural significance of the project.
Still, The Force Awakens showed itself a spectacular movie in the spirit of the original trilogy, which ended with Return of the Jedi in 1983 (this one took up the story 30 years later) reawakening our love of the first movie and turning our inner fanboys to mush… Even Harrison Ford cried after seeing the film for the first time.
2. Titanic (1997)
Director: James Cameron
With a production value of $200 million, the movie about Jack and Rose’s doomed love affair cost more than the boat itself. But it paid off; the movie was number one at the U.S. box office for a record fifteen consecutive weeks and the first film to be released on VHS/DVD while it was still being shown in theaters. In fact, Paramount had to send out replacement reels to theaters who had literally worn out their copies.
In the years since its release, the film that launched the career of Kate Winslet – and proved that audiences were more than happy to endure a three-hour run-time – has become the stuff of movie-making legend, not to mention a gazillion memes.
1. Avatar (2009)
Director: James Cameron
As the highest grossing film of all time, it’s not easy to forget the impact that Avatar had… Cameron’s crazy space fantasy about a paraplegic soldier who travels to another world and falls in love with an alien princess, singlehandedly ushered in the 3D revolution; saw fans scrambling to see it three, four or more times, and which had studios scrambling desperately to shoot their tentpole offerings in stereoscope.
So, there you have it, the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time. But, since money ain’t what it used to be, we’ve also included the highest grossing movies adjusted for inflation, because to ignore the seminal influence of films like Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music would be a crime against cinema.
These films didn’t knock our previous 10 films off the top spot in terms of overall profit, but respectively they raked in more money relative to the time they were made – and so probably had bigger overall influence…
Movies Adjusted for Inflation
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Director: David Hand
Adjusted worldwide gross: $1,819,000,000
Way back in ‘37, no one had ever tried to make a feature-length animated movie in America before. So, when Walt Disney came forth with his idea to do a feature length version of the fairy tale Snow White, the idea was quickly dubbed “Disney’s Folly.”
Those critics ate their own words pretty swiftly as the movie – about a princess who hides with the dwarfs while fending off assassination attempts from a jealous queen – quickly made more than four times as much money as any other film in 1938 and still stands as one of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time.
9. Jaws (1975)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,027,000,000
The film about a giant great white shark wreaking havoc on the shores of New England opened on only four hundred and nine screens. But, within 78 days, it had become the highest-grossing movie of its time.
Part of what helped the movie make gold at the box office was probably the iconic song composed by the legendary John Williams. When Williams originally played the score for Spielberg, however, the director reportedly laughed and said, “That’s funny, John, really; but what did you really have in mind for the theme?” Spielberg later stated that without Williams’ soundtrack, the movie wouldn’t have been half as successful.
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Director: David Lean
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,073,000,000
Doctor Zhivago – a film about a Russian’s experiences of hardship during the First World War and October Revolution – was ripped to shreds by critics when first released in 1965. Apparently, director Lean was so deeply affected by these criticisms that he swore he’d never make another film.
However, thanks in part to MGM’s extreme marketing campaign, the flick became a spectacular success at the box office and the second highest grossing film of 1965, behind The Sound of Music. It went on to bag itself 10 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Director), before eventually taking home five awards.
7. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,187,000,000
The Ten Commandments director Cecil B. DeMille suffered a heart attack during the production, after climbing 130 feet to check a faulty camera perched on one of the giant gates used during the Exodus sequence. Not one to be deterred, he reportedly took two days off work and then – against his doctor’s orders – returned to complete the film.
Kinda lucky, really, because The Ten Commandments turned out to be a fascinating historical film — not for what it says about Moses, but for what it reflects about the Cold War. It also raked in an insanely healthy sum at the box office.
6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,310,000,000
The E.T. script was largely written while on location filming for Raiders of the Lost Ark, during filming breaks. Spielberg reportedly dictated the story to screenwriter Melissa Mathison who was there with her then-boyfriend and future husband Harrison Ford, who very nearly had a cameo in E.T. himself.
When it was test-screened at the Cannes Film Festival as an unofficial entry, the film – which follows a small boy and his friendly alien buddy – brought the house down, receiving a standing ovation that had eluded most of the official entries.
5. The Sound of Music (1956)
Director: Robert Wise
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,366,000,000
Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox paid over over $1 million for the rights to the movie – a massive amount of cash at the time – simply to try and rescue itself from the film flop that went before it – the Elizabeth Taylor-starring Cleopatra. It was worth every penny: The Sound of Music was a massive hit.
So much so, that when the film was released in South Korea, it did so much business that some theaters were showing it four or five times a day. One theater in Seoul apparently tried to figure out a way to show it even more often, in order to bring in more customers. How? By cutting all of the musical numbers.
4. Titanic (1997)
Director: James Cameron
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,516,000,000
Titanic appears twice here because – apparently – people just can’t get enough of the film that tells the story of one of the greatest ever maritime fails, with the aid of a high-class gal and a hot guy with a floppy side parting. Not only was Titanic one of the highest Hollywood earners for its time, it also still stands as one of the biggest money-spinning movies ever.
3. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Director: George Lucas
Adjusted worldwide gross: $2,825,000,000
George Lucas was so sure A New Hope would flop (he showed an early cut to a group of his scathing film director pals, including Brian De Palma, who reportedly called it the “worst movie ever”) that instead of attending the premiere he went on vacation with Steven Spielberg, where they came up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
What’s more, when 20th Century Fox attempted to distribute A New Hope in the U.S., fewer than 40 theaters agreed to show it. As a solution, Fox threatened that any cinema that refused to show the movie would not be given the rights to screen the potential blockbuster The Other Side of Midnight, which ended up grossing less than 10% of what Star Wars did.
Director: James Cameron
Adjusted worldwide gross: $3,020,000,000
In retrospect, Avatar may not have been quite as epoch-defining a piece of cinema as it seemed, even earning itself a place on both of these lists. But if Cameron succeeds in transforming Avatar into more than the sum of its parts over another too-weird-for-its-own-good space fantasy with Avatar 2, we’ll be stoked.
1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Adjusted worldwide gross: $3,440,000,000
Ouch: The highest grossing movie of all time is, without question, lenient to the Confederacy, demeaning to black actors, and denies the truth about slavery…
That said, arguably Gone With the Wind is no more questionable than white Hollywood’s regular present-day output. What’s more, the movie does offer a really compelling watch, as it follows around a manipulative woman and a roguish man as they conduct a turbulent romance during the American Civil War.
Now find out which are the 10 most expensive Hollywood movies of all time.
- Lead image: Paramount Pictures