The biggest box office booms and busts since 1982

If you read my last post about the correlation between a film’s budget and its performance in the box office, you were possibly intrigued about my mentions of the biggest box office successes and failures. I decided to focus on this topic a little more by using Box Office Mojo’s data to provide some top 25 lists. For maximum alliteration, I’ll call the successes “booms” and the failures “busts.”

The booms

“Booms” are films that made the most money from ticket sales* after the cost of the production budget is subtracted. These are all films that you most likely went to see in the theaters at least once, if you were old enough.

top-25-box-office-hits-net-profit-us

Interestingly, most of the films in this list are from the 1980s and 1990s. It seems that even though film production companies are spending more on producing bigger films, their investments aren’t being matched by moviegoers at the theater. In fact, the only film from the past decade to make the top 25 is The Hunger Games, which (unsurprisingly) has had a sequel every year since it was released.

Of course, the downside of looking at “the booms” by looking at net profit is that it favors the big-budget films with a massive marketing budget. What about the successful underdog films that were made in someone’s bedroom with a low-grade camera? To find the underdog success stories, I calculated the profit ratio (net profit / budget) and ranked the films again.

top-25-box-office-hits-profit-ratio-us

Paranormal Activity is by far the biggest underdog success story, having been shot on a $15,000 budget with a home video camera in a single house. The Blair Witch Project — shot in a very similar manner to Paranormal Activity — unsurprisingly shows up in 3rd place. Tarnation holds the record of the highest-profit film that was produced with less than $250. Incredibly, E.T. still shows up in the top 25 on this list despite its $10.5 million budget. Talk about a box office success!

The busts

“Busts” are films that had millions of dollars poured into them to hire high-profile actors, shoot stunning scenery, and produce the best CGI the film industry has to offer, but no one showed up in the theaters. You probably heard about these movies when they came out, then quickly forgot about them a few days later.

top-25-box-office-flops-net-losses-us

Given the growing production budgets of modern films, it’s no surprise that films from the past decade dominate this list. The biggest surprise in my mind is Waterworld, which suffered from an extremely bloated budget. Thankfully, Waterworld did much better in the international theaters and eventually broke even, but it’s unlikely we’ll see another Waterworld anytime soon.

Another shocker on this list is Tangled, which ranks in as the most expensive animated film ever made with estimated production budget of $260 million. Again, Tangled eventually turned a profit when it was released in international theaters, but it’s mind-boggling how expensive animated films can be!

As with “the booms,” focusing only on net losses limits the busts list to films with gargantuan production budgets that didn’t live up to the producers’ expectations. But what about the films that failed so spectacularly in the box office that they probably marked the end of the producers’ career? To find the spectacular failures, I computed the loss ratio (net losses / budget) and ranked the films again.

top-25-box-office-flops-loss-ratio-us

Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of most of these films: They’re on this list for a reason. Zyzzyx Road — with a $1.3M budget — holds a special place on this list because of its incredibly large loss ratio and it only brought in $30 in box office ticket sales. This spectacular failure was engineered by the producer, however, because he wanted to focus on international distribution of the film.

Folks who consider The Boondock Saints a cult classic may be shocked to see it show up on this list. The Boondock Saints was terribly received when it was first released in 2000, and only later turned a profit when it developed a cult following long after its failure in the box office. That just goes to show that even though box office performance is typically used to gauge a film’s success, the box office isn’t the be-all and end-all of film fame.


* When computing film profits, I summed all of the domestic ticket sales then, following the standard rule of thumb, divided the profits by half to account for movie theaters keeping a share of the ticket sales, taxes, etc.

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

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  • Really shocking to see Tangled so high on that list!

  • Kennon Gilson

    What about Cimino’s ‘Hell’s Gate’?

  • Moviegoer

    Lots of films (including Avatar) are missing budget data on Box Office Mojo. Did you get it from another source? http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=avatar.htm

  • nooblet

    How’s this bullshit accurate? Napoleon Dynamite budget was 400k and it grossed 46 million, 46 million is 115 times 400k, so Naploeon Dynamite didn’t go for 57x, but for 115x, and also where the fuck is The Exorcism which cost like 12 million and earned 400 million, thats like 33x so it should be somewhere on the list, who was the stupid dumb motherfucker that did this bullshit? Fuck “Dr.” Randy Olson, and tell him to suck a dick, if you can find him behind the rock he’s been hiding, and if I’m wrong, someone please explain me with full detail why I’m an idiot.

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