No subjective “best” list here, this one is based on stats. As the 21st century turns 16, we’ve got the 25 biggest-grossing domestic blockbusters to date.
Check the stunning list below, which is unlike any previous period in movie business history. (We’re using adjusted totals to account for changing ticket prices. Box Office Mojo’s top 200 all-time adjusted list is here.) Here’s what we learned by doing the numbers:
The 21st Century Has Delivered Many of the Biggest Hits in History
25 of the 100 all-time biggest-grossing films have come from the first 16 years of this century. 1984 to 2000, the era that perfected the modern blockbuster and mass release of movies, brought 17. So the 21st century has been an era of major hits.
But oddly, the first current-century films on the all-time-grossers list places #11: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” And “Avatar” is #14. (This is where adjusting becomes essential — unadjusted, the ten biggest grossers come from 1997 or later, which is a complete distortion of reality.)
And the trend continues: two of the top 20, eight of the top 50. It is only in the 51-100 slots that most recent smashes fall in.
In early eras, it was common every few years for one film to rise above all others, like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Ten Commandments,” and “The Sound of Music,” for example. Now the desire is for fewer films to do more business. That has the impact of keeping all but the rarest of films from performing way above the pack. (“Titanic” is the most recent, placing on the all-time blockbuster list at #5, the only film since 1982 to make the Top Ten.)
Resistance to Franchises Is Futile
Of the top 25, all but three are franchises or series titles that already have more than one entry. And only four of these were series starters.
The remaining three are barely removed from this designation. “Avatar” will finally get the first of its sequels next year; “Beauty and the Beast” is a continuation of Disney’s live action remakes of its animation classics, and “Passion of the Christ” is part of the Greatest Franchise Ever Made.
Not All Franchises Are Equal
Four “Star Wars” titles lead the way, with the entire group released in the period making the top 25. All three “Lord of the Rings” titles also did, though not the follow up “Hobbit” trilogy.
Both “Avengers” titles are included, along with two other Marvel titles (“Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2”). Four from this dominant brand seems about right: the depth of success and frequency of new titles likely reduces the demand for new ones. D.C. Comics is represented by Christopher Nolan’s two “Dark Knight” titles.
Animation has four entries, one from DreamWorks (“Shrek 2”) and three from Pixar (“Finding Nemo” and sequel “Finding Dory” and “Toy Story 3”). All four are series films of course. Pixar distributor Disney Animation just missed the cut with original “Frozen.”
Single entries from the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Jurassic Park,” “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “Hunger Games” series round out the 25. None was the start of the series and except for “Jurassic World” each had multiple other companions in their franchises since 2001.
Curiously, some top names fell short. No James Bond film (the granddaddy of today’s formula for success and still going strong after 55 years, more than half the history of feature film making), none of the eight “Fast and Furious” films nor any of the “Twilight” hits rose to the highest levels. The first two soar higher when international totals are added.
Genre Limitations Are Severe
If you are looking for comedies (at least live action), forget it. In 2000 the biggest-grossing film of the year was “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a rarity. The biggest-grossing comedy this century is 2004’s “Meet the Fockers” at $390 million — that’s about the level which “Wonder Woman” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” will finish. The “Hangover,” “Austin Powers” and “Rush Hour” series (all of which had entries this century) are all long gone.
Women who are not Wonder Woman are usually at the center of romance titles which have limits; “Gone With the Wind” and “Titanic” (#1 and 5 of all time) were epics with appeal to both sexes, as was “Dr. Zhivago” and other past smashes, but few would think of replicating them today.
And dramas – though never as easy to translate into huge success without genre attachments (“The Godather,” “The Exorcist,” “Love Story” all had added value) have been huge in the past. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” grossed the equivalent of $474 million. “Saving Private Ryan” over $400 million less than 20 years ago. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man” both over $380 million. Those days seem gone forever.
It’s a Comic-Con World
Of the 21 live action films on the list, only “The Passion of the Christ” would be a film not at home at the annual San Diego event. That more than anything explains the sense of limited range as to what is considered prime movie fare these days.
Oscars? What Oscars?
Three of the all-time biggest blockbusters were Best Picture winners (“Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic”) along with 16 of the 75 pre-2001 all-time biggest hits. Only one of the top 25 since 2000 (“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) can make that boast. Times have changed.
Most Veteran Directors Have Aged Out of the Top Performers
Only George Lucas (with his two final “Star Wars” films joining the series’ 1977 original and “American Graffiti”) and James Cameron (“Titanic” and “Avatar”) can claim films on the 100 biggest of all time in both centuries. Steven Spielberg, who has more — six — on the list than any other director, has none this century.
New Line Cinema
It’s a White Male World
“Shrek 2″‘s female co-director Vicky Jenson is the sole representative of her gender, with no other examples (Patty Jenkins joins the Top 50 for the century with “Wonder Woman”). No film directed by an African-American came close.
Among live-action films, only the final entry, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” stars a female lead. Five of the all-time ten biggest films, “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music, “The Exorcist,” “Titanic” and “Dr. Zhivago,” all have female lead or co-leads.
No African-American leads are to be found. While both groups have been slightly more elevated in top franchise films of late, hopefully Lucasfilm (“Star Wars: Force Awakens”), Marvel (Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Black Panther”) and the “Fast and Furious” franchises are leading the way toward more diversity that reflects our world.
The studios are making considerable money (though at huge expense — in costs, this century leads all periods), with the one-size-fits-all international model working for now. But it is hard to look at the list of biggest films and not wonder what happens when interest wanes in those genres as it inevitably will. Is anyone thinking about how to expand the scope of money-making high-end movies?
|(S millions)||100 all time|
|1||Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney/2015)||955.7||11|
|2||Avatar (20th Century Fox/2009)||859.7||15|
|3||Jurassic World (Universal/2015)||699.0||24|
|4||The Avengers (Disney/2012)||679.6||29|
|5||The Dark Knight (Warner Bros./2008)||658.3||31|
|6||Shrek 2 (Dreamworks/||628.1||35|
|8||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men’s Chest (Disney/2006)||571.3||48|
|9||The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line/2003)||544.9||54|
|10||Finding Nemo (Disney/2003)||544.4||55|
|11||Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Disney/2016)||534.3||57|
|12||Spider-Man 2 (Sony/2004)||531.8||59|
|13||The Passion of the Christ (Newmarker/2004)||528.8||63|
|14||Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (20th Century Fox/2005)||524.4||64|
|15||The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New Line/2002)||510.3||66|
|16||The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros./2012)||509.0||67|
|17||Beauty and the Beast (Disney/2017)||504.0||70|
|18||Finding Dory (Disney/2016)||496.4||73|
|19||Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Warner Bros./2001)||494.3||75|
|20||The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the King (New Line/2001)||484.4||83|
|21||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Paramount/2009)||476.5||87|
|22||Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/2015)||473.2||93|
|23||Stars Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (20th Century Fox/2002)||472.7||94|
|24||Toy Story 3 (Disney/2010)||461.5||97|
|25||The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate/2013)||451.9||99|