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The Biggest Box Office Hit Was Made 30 Years Ago

It’s not The Avengers or Avatar — the biggest box office hit of the last three decades was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. At least it is when you look at the data in the right way.

Data visualizer extraordinaire Randal S. Olson has taken all the US domestic ticket sales (adjusted for 2014 dollars) from all movies since 1982 and charted them against each other to find out what the “booms” and “busts” really were. His thinking was that since production costs for blockbuster movies have bloated incredibly in the last few years, subtracting those production costs from the total ticket sales would give us a better idea of the real stand-outs.

Here’s what Olson found after doing just that:


Only three films from the last decade made it into the top 25 — The Passion of the Christ, Avatar, and The Hunger Games. “Unsurprisingly,” Olson notes, “[The Hunger Games] has had a sequel every year since it was released.”

What about the underdogs? That is to say, which films made the most with the least production money? Oddly enough, almost all of them come from the last decade, with Paranormal Activity making an incredible 3,592 times what it was made for:


Now for the busts. Using the same formula (adjusted ticket sales – production costs), which films flopped?


Again, modern films with gigantic production budgets dominate the list. And then there’s Waterworld. Oh, Waterworld.

Lastly, Olson looked at the disasters — the films you’ve probably never heard of because the ratio of sales to production costs was so so bad:

Bust_ PIC

Yes, the 2.36 million dollar movie Zyzzyx Road made 35 dollars. Total. And remember that cult classics like The Boondock Saints are called “cult classics” for a reason.

The trends that Olson found begs the question: Do gigantic budgets actually mean better ticket sales? Well, Olson tackled that question too, but you’ll have to head over to his blog to find out.

Special thank to Randal S. Olson for permission to reproduce his nerdy work here.

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  1. JS says:

    This is a misleading premise on many levels, comparing apples with oranges. Taking Wiki’s estimates (which include international box office takings – is there any value to just limiting it to US domestic ticket sales?), The Long Ranger made subtracting those production costs from the total ticket salessubtracting those production costs from the total ticket sales$260.5m off a $225m budget, so clearly a loss there. Tangled made $591.8m so washes its face, covering over twice its $260m budget.

    Tentpole movies today cost more than they can ever hope to earn in US domestic sales and that simply doesn’t matter – the international market continues to grow. If you going to anything meaningful with these figures, subtract production costs with total ticket sales, not just US, and those charts will give a far more accurate take on hits & flops.

  2. Andrew says:

    How did Waterworld break even according to Wiki yet is the 2nd biggest loss on this list?

  3. J. says:

    Wait… Only ’82? What about Star Wars? I dunno guys, that was kind of a huge movie.