Movies That Made More Money Than You Think
August 7, 2023
In the modern world of cinema, the power of recognizable brands often sets the stage for box office success. However, now and then, something unique emerges that not only captivates audiences worldwide but also defies all expectations by amassing colossal profits beyond anyone's wildest imagination. These are the movies that made way more money than they were supposed to, shattering records and redefining the very essence of success in the film industry.
One ground rule is that each selection for this list was released in 1990 or afterward. This is approximately the time the modern box office landscape was born, with multiplexes overtaking the long-standing mom & pop movie theaters. It’s also hard to compare and analyze box office performances from several decades ago, as it wasn’t uncommon for a movie to be in theaters for months on end. Both Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music were in theaters for over four years upon their initial release, which certainly gave them an advantage towards becoming two of the highest-grossing films ever.
Several metrics were also used to make these selections, such as the amount of money the movie made, how much it was expected to make based on projections and the performance of similar movies, and its overall cultural relevance (or lack thereof). From underdog productions battling against all odds to star-driven blockbusters soaring to unprecedented heights, each film on this list has a unique tale to tell.
Ghost (1990) ($500 million)
1990 was the year of surprise hits. Pretty Woman, Home Alone, and Dances with Wolves all hugely outgrossed expectations. But the best of the bunch was Ghost, a bit of female counterprogramming from Paramount against the boy-friendly summer titles of Die Hard 2 and Back to the Future III.
Mixing steamy romance, crime drama thrills, the supernatural, and comedy, the film was the prototypical four-quadrant release. Its PG-13 rating wasn’t too risque for conservative viewers, while still pushing the envelope enough to entice teenagers. It opened #2 at the box office in July just behind the second weekend of Die Hard 2. It would remain in either of those top two spots for the following nine weeks and would retain the same theater count (1700) until November. It had the third-highest domestic gross ever (behind E.T. and Star Wars) before Home Alone dethroned it that holiday season. It’s a simply astounding feat for a film that has never inspired sequels, spin-offs, or even merchandise sales (at least not yet).
What Women Want (2000) ($375 million)
It’s hard to envision it now, but Mel Gibson was, for a brief moment, a romantic leading heartthrob. The $34.4 million opening weekend for Nancy Meyers’ film was the highest ever in December at that time and even bested Gibson’s action-oriented films like Ransom and the Lethal Weapon franchise. An EW poll found that nearly half the audience saw the movie for Gibson, who would receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical (losing to George Clooney for O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The film ended with $180 both domestically and internationally, claiming the fourth best worldwide cume of 2000.
Meet the Fockers (2004) ($525 million)
Gone are the days of star-driven studio comedies being at the top of the box office charts. Meet the Fockers earned the highest-ever Christmas Day gross at $19.5 million in 2004, even beating the previous’s year champion, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The character of Greg Focker was almost as lucrative as Harry Potter and Peter Parker that year, with the comedy sequel finishing its box office run with over half a billion dollars. It was Robert De Niro’s highest-grossing film for fifteen years until it was beaten by Joker in 2019.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) ($760 million)
While many films on this list accumulated their huge grosses due to good reviews and word of mouth, neither of those was the case for The Da Vinci Code. The film boasts a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes and was the recipient of several rounds of booing during its premiere as the opening film of that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film was also banned in several countries such as parts of India, Egypt, and China (after it had played for a few weeks), and was boycotted by several religious groups.
None of those factors stopped audiences from flocking to the film that summer. It amassed a near-record worldwide total of $224 million on its opening weekend, thanks in part to the immense popularity of the novel and the star power of Tom Hanks. Over 70% of its $750 million total gross would come from international territories, with a similar breakdown occurring for the film’s two disappointing sequels: Angels & Demons ($500 million total) and Inferno ($220 million total).
2012 (2009) ($770 million)
Sure, disaster movies are pretty dependable at the box office because of their simplistic storytelling and bang-for-your-buck visuals. But does it make much sense that one of the most forgettable entries in that subgenre, Roland Emmerich’s 2012, is also one of the most successful? 2012 was boosted by a viral marketing campaign that latched onto the urban legend of the world ending in the year 2012. Comcast even blocked out a ten-minute chunk of time on nearly every genre to show a clip of the film.
Even with a less-than-ideal leading man in John Cusack, the film accumulated almost $800 million worldwide. Almost 80% of those dollars came from overseas, as the film was the first $700+ million grosser to make less than $200 million stateside.
True Grit (2010) ($250 million)
It only took twelve days for this Western remake to become the highest-grossing film within the Coen brothers’ filmography. The strong critical reactions and awards buzz helped the movie double its opening weekend projections, pulling in over $25 million during the holiday weekend. There was also the advantage of the Coens dialing down their eccentricities for this film, delivering a more conventional crowdpleaser that had a more long-lasting theatrical appeal. It ended up being one of the highest-grossing Westerns ever, finishing with $171 million domestically and $81 internationally. That holiday window happened to be the coronation of star Jeff Bridges, who also appeared in the chart-topping TRON: Legacy.
Black Swan (2010) ($330 million)
While it is nice to see Oppenheimer and Barbie sparking a renewed conversation about the merits of “original” programming at the box office, it is still a little disheartening to see that this same conversation was taking place over a decade ago thanks to Black Swan. Strong interest in Darren Aronosky’s film started from the viral marketing campaign, which didn’t commence until just a few weeks before the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The buzz out of the fall festivals matched the enthusiasm online, something relatively unheard of for an arthouse movie.
Along with the strong critical remarks it received, especially for Natalie Portman’s lead performance, one of the biggest benefits of the movie was that it was somehow able to appeal to nearly every demographic. Arthouse cinephiles were excited about a new Aronofsky film, dance and theater fans got a unique reimagining of Swan Lake, and horror junkies were treated to a dark psychological tale of obsession. The film would gross over $100 million domestically, all before it even had been released internationally, with many of those dates pushed up to capitalize on the demand. In the end, it grossed $330 million worldwide on a $13 million budget, placing it as the second biggest sleeper hit of 2010. What was #1 you ask?
The King's Speech (2010) ($480 million)
Everything Everywhere All at Once’s worldwide gross of $140 million puts it near the top half of Best Picture winners in the modern era. But that total doesn’t even match the domestic cume of The King’s Speech, which only accounted for a little less than a third of the film’s global take of almost $500 million. Tom Hooper’s film is the second-highest-grossing Best Picture winner of the 21st century, behind The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (which stands so far ahead with over $1 billion).
Between claiming the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, having the highest per-theater-average opening weekend of the year ($350,000), and receiving a yearly best of twelve Oscar nominations, success followed The King’s Speech everywhere it went. It was hailed as one of the most successful British independent films ever only after a month of release, overcoming the controversial R-rating it received. The film also made over half its money after the Oscar nominations were announced, with the compelling exploration of friendship and resilience resonating deeply with viewers.
American Sniper (2014) ($550 million)
If asked to guess which film conquered the North American box office in 2014 most people would defer to a franchise film such as Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Those would all be good guesses (they each placed within the top five), but sitting on the throne was 84-year-old Clint Eastwood with American Sniper.
Showing the power of appealing to middle America and controversy about its messaging, American Sniper grossed $90 million in its opening weekend, more than double what it projected to do. The A+ CinemaScore and awards attention kept it at the top of the box office for the next six weeks, where it would end with over $350 million domestically and $550 worldwide. It still stands as the highest-grossing war film ever (not accounting for inflation) and is only behind The Passion of the Christ and Deadpool as the highest-grossing R-rated film in North America.