Already the most financially successful franchise in movie history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is taking a victory lap as Avengers: Endgame — the culmination of a story 11 years and 22 films in the making — becomes the highest-grossing film of all time, taking in over $1 billion in just its opening weekend and crossing the $2 billion threshold by its second week. King of the blockbusters, indeed; Endgame is dethroning Avatar, which has held the record as highest-grossing film for almost a decade.
The term “blockbuster,” as it relates to film, gets thrown around a lot. It truly moved to the fore in 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became the first movie to gross over $100 million at the box office thanks to buzz and repeat viewings. When Star Wars bested the achievement two years later, and successive big hits landed throughout the 1980s, blockbusters became ubiquitous and box office records became goals for studios to pursue. These days, successful big-budget films routinely cross that $100 million mark in their opening weekends, and massive amounts of cash are raked in during front-loaded theater runs rather than over stretches of many months.
Of course, ticket prices have become so inflated over the decades that grossing hundreds of millions of dollars begins to mean less in terms of judging a film’s success with audiences. After all, adjusted for inflation, the top ticket-sellers of all time are still Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, and The Sound of Music (according to Box Office Mojo).
That doesn’t entirely diminish the achievement of the movies on this list, though. After all, many, many tentpole films are released by studios each year, and there are “only” 39 that have hit the magical $1 billion mark. It’s enough, though, that Flickchart has created a new franchise filter for the Billion-Dollar Film Club. I propose that while most films in this club are “tentpoles” — movies that support their studios with their grosses — the true measure of a “blockbuster” is now that a movie hits that billion mark. Take Jaws, and multiply it by ten.
Obviously, most of these are franchise films, which build their success on previous engagement and audience expectations, so it will be less unwieldy to discuss them in groups. At the end of the article I’ll present the ranked list in order, but without further ado, here are the modern blockbusters, as ranked by Flickchart’s users:
The Barrel-Scrapers: Transformers and Minions
#35: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
#37: Minions (2015)
#38: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
#39: Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Not all successful movies are good movies. Two franchises exemplify this: Transformers and Despicable Me. A financially successful film has to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and the biggest audiences are families with kids.
While the appeal of Illumination Entertainment’s nonsense-speaking Minions might baffle die-hard film fans, they no doubt appeal to small children in a big way. Further capitalizing on this fact will be Minions 2, opening in 2020.
Transformers is a different case. The first five films in the franchise were directed by Michael Bay. Each of the first four grossed more than the previous, until Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction crossed that billion-dollar threshold. Then, 2017’s The Last Knight “only” made $605 million worldwide. 2018 brought the first spin-off, Bumblebee, under a new director, which garnered stronger critical reviews but struggled at the box office. With Bumblebee only amassing $377 million worldwide on a $135 million budget, we may never see another billion-dollar Transformers film… or even another one at all. (Some people would not call this a great loss.)
The Sparrow’s Roost: Pirates of the Caribbean
#23: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
#34: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2007)
Dead Man’s Chest capitalized on the phenomenal popularity of Johnny Depp’s transformative performance in the first film, but it’s telling that its sequel, At World’s End (filmed at the same time and released the following year) couldn’t match its box office performance.
Waiting a few years seemed to work for the fourth film, though. On Stranger Tides grossed only half what Dead Man’s Chest did domestically, but made up for it with huge numbers overseas. The fifth film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, was again a success, but with the domestic total shrinking again and most money coming from foreign markets. It’s uncertain whether the swashbuckling franchise will make another appearance.
The Outliers: James Bond and Harry Potter
#11: Skyfall (2012)
#13: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
What we have here are two of the longest-running and highest-grossing film franchises of all time. Each has brought in multiple billions of dollars for its respective studio, yet each has also only had a single entry cross the modern blockbuster barrier.
The stars aligned perfectly for James Bond’s most successful outing, Skyfall, but bringing back the same director (Sam Mendes) for Spectre three years later did not equate to the same success. Was Skyfall‘s success truly attributable to the phenomenal popularity of its title song from pop superstar Adele? The 25th Bond film (which will be star Daniel Craig’s last) is on its way for a 2020 release, with director Cary Fukunaga at the helm and recent Oscar winner Rami Malek as the villain. Can the world’s favorite super-spy grab the brass ring again?
Meanwhile, the Harry Potter franchise, based on the seven-book fantasy series from J.K. Rowling, was always a massive success, with several entries approaching the billion-dollar mark. It was only the eighth and final installment (which presented the second half of the final book), however, that finally surpassed it. No doubt desperate to hang on to this cash cow, Warner Bros. has released a couple of further adventures in Rowling’s Wizarding World under the Fantastic Beasts franchise, but they haven’t caught on in the way that Harry Potter did.
The Unlikeliest Franchise: The Fast and the Furious
#28: Furious 7 (2015)
#33: The Fate of the Furious (2017)
The street-racing film The Fast and the Furious, starring Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker, debuted in 2001 to modest success. Was anybody actually clamoring for a sequel? Who knows, but a middling second film with a grammatically challenging title, 2 Fast 2 Furious (bringing back only Walker) led to a third movie that featured no original cast members except for a small cameo from Diesel. Yet Universal kept trying, and when the fourth movie — simply titled Fast & Furious — brought back all the cast members from the original film, this franchise suddenly hit its stride. Furious 7 may have had its box office bolstered by the tragic death of Walker (in, of all things, a car accident), but the eighth film, The Fate of the Furious, proved the franchise still has muscle. 2019 is seeing if a spin-off, Hobbs & Shaw, can continue the success, featuring latter-half franchise stalwarts Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in the title roles.
The Remakes: Live-Action Disney
#31: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
#32: Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice and Wonderland was something of a surprise super-smash in 2010; it wasn’t a sequel, and in a lot of ways it wasn’t even a remake of Disney’s animated classic. Instead, it rode on the coattails of Johnny Depp’s popularity in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Nonetheless, Alice spawned a sequel and sparked a new trend at the Mouse House (one that this writer finds somewhat alarming), as they now appear hell-bent on remaking every single one of their classic animated movies. It doesn’t help that films like Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty told from the point of view of the villain) and The Jungle Book (using all the same songs!) were box office successes. But we can truly blame Beauty and the Beast, which remade the first animated movie to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, practically beat-for-beat, and took in more than a cool billion for Disney in the process. Dumbo (from Alice director Tim Burton) stumbled in March, but this year is still seeing the rise of The Lion King and Aladdin remakes. Disney’s box office stranglehold continues.
The New Family Film Standard: Disney Animation Studios
#20: Zootopia (2016)
#25: Frozen (2013)
Fortunately, Disney is at least cranking out some original animated content, and these two films set a high bar for quality. Even more amazingly, they aren’t sequels. You’d better believe they’re getting sequels, though. Zootopia is rumored to have not just one but two follow-ups in the works. And Frozen II is coming this November, because you know Disney wasn’t going to let that one go. (Admit it; you’ve got that song stuck in your head now.)
The Animation Super-Studio: Pixar
#7: Toy Story 3 (2010)
#19: Incredibles 2 (2018)
#27: Finding Dory (2016)
With the exception of Disney (which owns Pixar anyway), Pixar Animation Studios was probably the first studio that could generate as much traffic from its name alone as any big star or filmmaker. Almost every one of their original films is a gem, but it’s no real surprise that it’s some of their sequels that have brought in the most bank, building on their predecessors’ success. It’s even more impressive considering how much time passes between Pixar films and their sequels. Toy Story 3 came 11 years after Toy Story 2; Finding Dory 13 years after Finding Nemo; and Incredibles 2 14 years after The Incredibles. Toy Story 4 arrives this year; in comparison, the 9 years since Toy Story 3 feels like just yesterday.
The One to Rule Them All: The Lord of the Rings
#2: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
#22: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on some of the most-read and best-loved books of all time, was a success on all fronts. The third chapter, The Return of the King, became only the second film to cross the billion dollar threshold (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, released four years prior, hit the mark on re-release). It also tied the record held by 1959’s Ben-Hur for the most Oscars won by a single film when it took home the statue in all of the 13 categories for which it was nominated.
Nearly a decade later, anticipation from the trilogy’s fans propelled the first chapter of Jackson’s new Middle-Earth trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, to a billion-dollar payday, but it was obvious that splitting Tolkien’s single-volume children’s book into three long films was stretching the story a little thin. Its follow-ups, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies made plenty of dough, but saw diminishing returns, and fell shy of Journey‘s success.
The Prehistoric Powerhouse: Jurassic Park
#3: Jurassic Park (1993)
#29: Jurassic World (2015)
#36: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Already the highest-grossing movie of 1993, Jurassic Park is one of a couple films on this list that crossed the billion mark on re-release. Which is still nothing to sneeze at. Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur flick, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, was a major pioneer in modern CGI techniques, and is all the more impressive because it was released the same year as Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Director.
Two middling sequels, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, directed by Spielberg, and Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston, were not as well received, but 14 years later Universal unleashed director Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, and this “new” franchise has brought dinos back to the top of the box office with two billion-dollar paydays in a row. Jurassic World 3 is slated for a 2021 release.
The Galaxy Far, Far Away: Star Wars
#14: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
#16: Rogue One (2016)
#26: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was one of the most-anticipated films of all time upon its 1999 release. In the early days of the Internet, before the advent of YouTube, its teaser trailer was downloaded an astounding 10 million times. Of course, the film is highly divisive among Star Wars fans, but that didn’t prevent it from amassing a billion dollars in total ticket sales (though it took a 3D re-release in 2010 to get there).
When the Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm, they shelved the planned 3D re-releases of Episodes II and III in order to focus on developing a new series of Star Wars films. Though the comparative flop of Solo: A Star Wars Story last year has caused Disney to set aside spin-off stories like Rogue One (at least for now), Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, was a billion-dollar earner (even while weathering controversy, much like The Phantom Menace). Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, promises a conclusion to the newest trilogy, and should have no problem busting the block when it bows in December.
The Mightiest Heroes: The Marvel Cinematic Universe
#4: The Avengers (2012)
#9: Captain America: Civil War (2016)
#12: Black Panther (2018)
#18: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
#21: Iron Man 3 (2013)
#24: Captain Marvel (2019)
22 films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is at full stride. It’s not really a surprise that the hotly anticipated team-up films — The Avengers, Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War (which is really more Avengers 3 than Captain America 3) and the current king, Endgame — would bring the franchise’s fans out in droves. But some of Marvel Studios’ solo films have hit the mark, too. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are notable for finally featuring a hero of color and a woman in their central roles. Iron Man 3 is somewhat the dark horse here, but as the first film released after the first Avengers film, it was no doubt still riding on the audience’s high. (Plus, never underestimate the appeal of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.)
The First and Next: DC Comics
#1: The Dark Knight (2008)
#8: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
#30: Aquaman (2018)
Before the Avengers, there was Batman. The 1989 film, directed by Tim Burton, is not on this list, but is notable for being one of the first movies to gross more than $100 million in its opening weekend, and it set the trend of front-loaded theater runs that big-budget movies have been riding ever since. The tortured Bruce Wayne first appeared in a film directed by Christopher Nolan in 2005’s Batman Begins, but it was The Dark Knight in 2008 (the same year that Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe) that became the first comic book movie to make a billion, riding on the success of its predecessor and a blistering, posthumously Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker. It’s also the highest-ranked film from this list on Flickchart, at #15 of all time.
It’s not surprising that Nolan’s trilogy-capper, The Dark Knight Rises, emulated this success, but now DC Comics films are in a weird place, as Warner Bros. attempts to match Marvel Studios’ success and create a new “cinematic universe.” Fan reactions to new Superman and Batman films have been tepid, but Wonder Woman was met with critical acclaim as the first truly successful superhero film with a female lead. Yet it is Aquaman, of all things, that has pushed the new DC Expanded Universe into true box office contention. No longer just a running joke on the television series Entourage, the Aquaman movie is a billion-dollar success story. Who figured?
The Two-Billion-Dollar Club: Kings of the World
#17: Avatar (2009)
#15: Titanic (1997)
#6: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
#5: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Endgame joins and is topping this list in only its second week of theatrical release, but there are four other films that comprise the Two Billion Dollar Club. As expected, two of them are among the biggest theatrical “event” films of this century… but surprisingly, the other two are among the most original films on this list.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was in the same position The Phantom Menace was 16 years prior, as the start of a new Star Wars trilogy for a new generation. Infinity War is the first part of the story that Endgame is wrapping up: the culmination of over a decade of interconnected Marvel stories.
And then we have Titanic, the winner of 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and the very first film to make over $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. (Its 2012 3D re-release propelled it over the $2 billion mark.) Avatar is the very next film directed by James Cameron after Titanic, 12 years later. Avatar‘s visual spectacle was pioneering in the arena of performance-capture technologies, and starting a new trend in 3D films, while becoming the first $2 billion film in the process. Cameron has spent the past decade working on not just one but four sequels to Avatar. The first is finally due to arrive next year, but the big question is: by the time it does, will anybody care?
Almost all of these films hail from this century. As the ticket prices go up, the expectations must inevitably be higher. You want to be a blockbuster? Go break a billion.
Avengers: Endgame is already #10 on this list, and rising. Here are the world’s 39 highest-grossing films, ranked from worst to best by the users of Flickchart:
- Despicable Me 3 – #37,427
- Transformers: Age of Extinction – #33,686
- Minions – #13,404
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – #9,069
- Transformers: Dark of the Moon – #8,041
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – #5,972
- The Fate of the Furious – #5,622
- Alice in Wonderland – #5,543
- Beauty and the Beast – #4,984
- Aquaman – #3,422
- Jurassic World – #2,977
- Furious 7 – #2,968
- Finding Dory – #2,625
- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – #2,133
- Frozen – #2,024
- Captain Marvel – #1,866
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – #1,745
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – #1,683
- Iron Man 3 – #1,680
- Zootopia – #1,344
- Incredibles 2 – #1,316
- Avengers: Age of Ultron – #1,312
- Avatar – #814
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – #779
- Titanic – #758
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi – #739
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – #730
- Black Panther – #680
- Skyfall – #627
- Avengers: Endgame – #484
- Captain America: Civil War – #443
- The Dark Knight Rises – #396
- Toy Story 3 – #389
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens – #334
- Avengers: Infinity War – #251
- The Avengers – #244
- Jurassic Park – #70
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – #68
- The Dark Knight – #15