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The 15 Most Profitable Movies of All-Time

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I was listening to the radio in the car yesterday where I heard a local talk show discussing the most profitable movies of all-time. I made a mental note that I should write about it, when I got back home. Unfortunately for readers, just as I walked in the door I noticed a ball of yarn on the floor. After some play, which lead to some cat nip, I curled up in a ball for a nap. Waking up from the nap, the idea was gone.

Well the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death last has brought the idea back to the forefront of my mind. I went through Elizabeth's Taylor's movies and I sadly have to say that the only memorable experience that I had of her acting is as the voice for Maggie Simpson in one episode of The Simpson's. This is a time to remember the valuable entertainment that actors and movies bring to us. With that in mind, it is even more appropriate to look at the financial perspective of movies than it was 24 hours ago.

CNBC brings us the research of the 15 Most Profitable Movies of All-Time. There are a couple of different ways you could define that. I would define it as the one that netted the most money. CNBC chooses to define it as movies that percentage of gain for each dollar invested. Thus, in this list, it is better if you can turn a $100,000 movie into a million dollar movie than a million dollar movie to a 5 million dollar movie. Again, I'd rather have the $4M of profit than the $900K, but this analysis tends to make for a more interesting list in my opinion. All CNBC's money data is adjusted for inflation.

One big thing to note here is that DVD sales aren't included. Thus some of my favorites low budget movies like Clerks and Office Space get the short-end of the stick.

    15. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

    Return of the King made a 1008% return on the investment. The key to this seems to be that all the movies were shot at the same time, and most of the major actors were unknown. Orlando Bloom couldn't cash on his popularity (other than being swarmed by hordes of women). There are few other big actors or actresses. It's not like Liv Tyler's bit part was going to break the bank (though she'll still be one of my top actress crushes of all time).

    What they saved on actors, I imagine went to sets and special effects. After all it still cost over $100 million to make.

    14. Mrs. Doubtfire

    This was a movie that starred one major actor, Robin Williams and no complex sets or special effects. It's just great humor, suitable for the widest audience - the whole family.

    13. Something About Mary

    Cameron Diaz wasn't a leading actress until this role. Ben Stiller was mostly a TV actor. The budget was kept low and word of mouth pushed this into being a box office smash.

    12. The Hangover

    Following the Something About Mary plan, this movie was built around a bunch of no-name actors. It also was big on word of mouth. I heard about it because my wife heard about from a friend. I went with a friend who hadn't heard about it. Quite honestly, I went to a lot of movies that summer, and it didn't have ANY competition. It was worth seeing the movie twice before seeing almost any other movie once. I have bought one DVD of a movie that was in the theaters over the last five years. This was it.

    11. Jaws

    Jaws is one of the classic movies of all-time of course. The mechanical shark wasn't expensive and the actors were cheap. I think of it as the blockbuster movie that wasn't a blockbuster. If it were made today, I can imagine a ton of special effects making it expensive. Another thing to note was that with there being no PG-13 rating at the time, it slipped in a PG rating that made it suitable for families. Of course suitable is relative. The same movie rating system decided that Gremlins was suitable for a 8-year old Lazy Man - a mistake.

    10. Ghost

    The movie's budget came in at an inflation-adjusted $35 million. One might ask how it was possible to get established actors like Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Whoopi Goldberg for this price. Demi Moore wasn't the leading lady that she would be become. Patrick Swayze had Road House tarnishing his Dirty Dancing success and Whoopi Goldberg was 5 years removed the Color Purple. I was shocked to hear that it made an adjusted $506 million at the box office. It was a very good movie, but I think I need a recount.

    9. Home Alone

    This was another budget movie. Joe Pesci was just starting to get popular with Goodfellas being released in the same year and My Cousin Vinny coming later. Macaulay Culkin was well, a kid actor who hadn't tone much. The set of a house wasn't expensive. Much of the humor was slapstick, so you didn't even have to hire witty writers. However, the concept was fairly original and suitable for the whole family - a lot like Mrs. Doubtfire.

    8. The Passion of the Christ

    I can't say much about this movie as I haven't seen it. However, I know quite a few people who went to see it, multiple times.

    7. American Beauty

    This is one of those cases where you have an established actors Kevin Spacey (Se7en, Usual Suspects, The Negotiator) and Annette Bening signing on because of the script. The characters were unique and noteworthy enough to garner many awards. It was one of those movies that as an actor you take as a B-level actor in hopes of becoming A-level. The Beauty (pun intended) is that it only cost an adjusted $20 million to make. Mena Suvari's bit part in the movie probably would have been worth that alone.

    6. Star Wars Episode IV

    I never realized that Star Wars' budget was so low. It was just an inflation adjusted $40M. That played a key role in profitability. The box office total was $775 Million. I'm not sure if that includes re-releases of movie though. If so that would also play a key role.

    5. Grease

    The original article mentions, both John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John "were major stars." I'm going to have to take CNBC's word for it, because at the age of 2, I wasn't into movies. I didn't see Olivia Newton-John in anything else big before it. It seems she was more famous for her music. John Travolta with his role in Welcome Back Kotter, but also Saturday Night Fever, would have been like signing Ashton Kutcher early in his career - you could probably get him for a good price.

    Of course the movie became extremely popular with kids with people seeing it multiple times. However, the key to making it this high on the list was keeping the budget at 20M.

    4. Pretty Woman (15th Anniversary Special Edition)

    Richard Gere had been pretty far removed from his big role in An Officer and a Gentleman. It was Julia Roberts first leading role. The lack of special effects and expensive scenes kept the costs to down to an adjusted $23 million. So when in became the hit of the year, it earned this high ranking.

    3. Slumdog Millionaire

    With no big stars or sets, the film cost an adjusted 15M to make. The movie had wide appeal. Not only was a good family movie, but it was a good ethnic movie. When you have a story good enough to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and spend so little making it, you are going be quite successful.

    2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

    The article makes a great point that at this time Spielberg could sell just about anything he made due to his prior success. He had a great story that didn't require expensive actors. The article makes particular mention that it ran in theaters for months. I remember it running for years near me. It was the only movie that I remember not being able to get into for months and months.

    The only surprise here is that it isn't #1.

    1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

    Huh, that's a surprise, isn't it? Maybe it isn't. The small indie movie only cost an adjusted $6 million to make. So at 1/3rd the cost of Slumdog Millionaire it benefited from having similar success. The key to this success was keeping the denominator low with no-name actors and sets. It was an entertaining movie suitable for the whole family that resonated with people who weren't Greek.

Final Analysis

There are a few things all these movies have in common. They don't have a ton of A-list actors and actresses. You don't see an Ocean's Eleven in there. In addition you'll see that costs were kept low. Of course the methodology of looking at percent gain versus dollar gain gives benefit to those movies with more room to grow.

It is a little bit like investing in small cap. stocks. You may get profits from the big companies, but you aren't likely to hit the home run with outstanding growth that this analysis measures.

Article Hat Tips: CNBC's 15 Most Profitable Movies (via: Sarah and Vinnie and MovieFone)

Posted on March 23, 2011.

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13 Responses to “The 15 Most Profitable Movies of All-Time”

  1. Rasheed says:

    Hey LM,

    Great post :)

    One thing to note about the study is that it only focuses on movies that were played in theaters. If, for example, a couple friends and myself decided to make a low budget movie for like, $1000, just for kicks, and then charge $5 at college campuses for tickets, then I could theoretically net a lot more growth, though the profits may be chump change compared to those heavy-hitters.

    One group I know that does this well is called Wong Fu Productions; they’re just independent film-makers who go around “on tour” showing their movies and shows (they usually have an on-going series). I know that tickets to go to a showing is like $15 per regular and $60 per VIP (aka front row) so they have potential for a lot of growth, but as they are low-key they probably will stay off the radar for sites like CNBC.

    Nothing’s wrong with the study per se, it just leaves out a lot of things.

    Interesting though; I didn’t know you blogged about entertainment as well! :P

  2. Hmm. Wonder what the ROI on Gone With the Wind was?

  3. Evan says:

    Thanks for doing the research! The first thing I think about when I hear about box office grosses is what was the profitability?

    I know there are ways (like a prosper/LendingClub) to invest in smaller pictures, but I never looked into it seriously b/c how many financial flops are there for each Big fat Greek Wedding

  4. […] The 15 Most Profitable Movies of All-Time @ Lazy Man and Money […]

  5. Don says:

    the blair witch project??

    Budget $500,000-$750,000
    Gross revenue $248,639,099

    giving it about 30,000% profit?
    granted, not a “ebertiful” movie but this is about $$ not art.

  6. Michele says:

    Depends on what you figure into it. If you count licensing the books haven’t closed on it.

  7. Glen says:

    One interesting thing in common with these movies is they have great stories. Hollywood, for the most part, seems to think big special effects drive a movie but this list proves that a great story is what really makes it successful.

    Imagine Jaws – Done today it would be full of crazy special effects and be in some kind of terrifying 3D where you see the teeth a foot away from your nose. But no amount of special effects can replicate Robert Shaw’s speech about being stuck in the water after being torpedoed in WWII. To me, that makes that movie.

  8. “Imagine Jaws – Done today it would be full of crazy special effects and be in some kind of terrifying 3D …”

    You don’t have to imagine it … Jaws 3D hit theatres in 1983 :)

  9. Sean says:

    You forgot Paranormal Activity, which was made for $15,000 and made $193,000,000. That’s a return I’d need a calculator to work out. I’ve never seen it but it out performed all of these films.

  10. Nara says:

    They have to add Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to this list pronto.

  11. […] I get to their methodology, let me reference my previous article on The 15 Most Profitable Movies of All-Time. CNBC went through box sales and divided the box office sales by the costs to make the movie. The […]

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