Which movies are the biggest money makers of all time? Surely something from Spielberg or Cameron, right? Well, as we took a closer look at all the numbers, we found some surprising results.
The big screen can be big business. Top talent can earn tens of millions of dollars for—at most—a few months’ work (plus a few minutes looking pretty and joshing around on Jay Leno’s couch come premier time).
It’s a pretty sweet deal. But that’s nothing compared to what the major studios who make, release, and market the films stand to earn. Despite all the criticisms of Hollywood from politicians and activists of all stripes, it is, in the end, a business. And like any business, they’ve become very adept at knowing how to part consumers from their money, and they do it in ways you may not even expect.
If we were to only consider global box office, the top grossing films of all time would both belong to writer/director James Cameron and his super duper mega-sized blockbusters Avatar and Titanic, which earned around $2.8 billion and $2.2 billion respectively. To put those numbers in some perspective, those are each higher than the 2011 gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire nation of Liberia.
That’s a lot of money. But also consider that these numbers only factor in theatrical ticket sales. There’s a number of ways for films to earn their ginormous expenditures back—everything from TV rights, home media sales (video, DVD, Blue-ray, etc.), broadcast rights, and even product placement. For example, Avatar—in this age of digital downloads and piracy—still managed to earn close to $200 million in physical DVD sales. While 1997’s Titanic generated $1.2 billion from video and DVD sales, plus an additional $55 million on the US broadcast rights alone (from HBO and NBC).
After all is said and done, both Avatar and Titanic earned close to $3.5 billion each (this does not take into account the recent limited-release Titanic in 3D, which cost $18 million to produce and went on to earn an additional global haul of $343.4 million, $100 million of which came from China alone). For a little global perspective: $3.5 billion would be more than the entire 2011 GDP of Belize or Greenland.
Of course, the above numbers don’t account for the true success of a film. For example, while Avatar may be the current box office leader, it doesn’t fairly compare to the “blockbusters” of different eras. First, you would have to consider inflation—the relative purchasing power of a dollar—in addition to the independent rise of ticket prices (as can be seen in the recent uptick in cost to see a 3D film). To complicate matters further, we have to throw a lot more variables in the mix when considering the global box office draw.
It’s not an exact science. However, after taking into account global inflation, Turner Entertainment estimated that 1939’s Gone With The Wind (a property it owns) actually earned $3.3 billion theatrically through its 73 years of global release. (This is GDP of Andorra territory.) This estimate may have some sway as the film can boast over 284 million admissions in the US alone, as compared to just under 131 million admission for the original release of Titanic. Furthermore—though they haven’t released their exact methodology—Guinness World Records estimates that Gone With The Wind has actually earned more than $5.3 billion dollars. That would put it near the 2010 GDP of the Principality of Monaco.
But once everything is taken into account, that’s still not the truly biggest blockbuster of all time. For this, we must also consider the parts of the movie business that have nothing to do with movies. Primarily, we’re talkin’ about the merchandising—all the lunchboxes, happy meal tie-ins, TV shows, and limited addition sugary cereals. And the undisputed champion of merchandising may surprise you.
Pixar’s original Cars film earned a respectable, but not explosive $461 million during its original 2006 run. However, it has gone on to generate approximately $10 billion in global retail sales. This is, to date, the most of any single film (and is the sole reason for there being a sequel to otherwise unremarkable theatrical run). To put that number in perspective, $10 billion from toys and candy tie-ins is more than the 2011 GDPs of either Montenegro or Barbados.
Yes, there is indeed a lot of money to be made in Hollywood. But it’s a bit of a trickier business than that. If you choose wrong on your next blockbuster, you not only endanger the careers of everyone involved, you can crater an entire studio around the mess of your horrible film.
Shed a tear for the embattled Hollywood mogul.
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