As regular readers know, Top Gun: Maverick ended the weekend with $642 million domestic, nearing the inflation-adjusted domestic total of Love Story ($107 million in 1970/$656 million adjusted) to rise ever higher on the list of inflation-adjusted Paramount grossers. No, it’s not getting anywhere near Titanic ($659 million in 1997 and 2012/$1.2 billion adjusted), but it got me thinking about what film ranks as the top-grossing movie of all time for each respective studio. So, using Box Office Mojo, The Numbers and the usual suspects, I compiled this list of the biggest grossing movies of all time for each major studio in inflation-adjusted domestic earnings. I’ve tried to include every relevant studio, with all due respect to the long-defunct RKO (Bambi) and the comparatively smaller-scale likes of STX (Bad Moms) or A24 (Everything, Everywhere All At Once). So, without further ado…
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate Movies )
$424 million in 2014/$479 million adjusted
The second instalment of the blockbuster Katniss Everdeen YA fantasy actioner proved its most popular and arguably most acclaimed. With a second-half shot on IMAX film (back when that was still a somewhat rare practice for tentpoles), the Francis Lawrence-directed instalment was less conventionally “hero’s journey” than the first instalment. It still offered its share of bread-and-circuses pageantry amid a “tournament of champions” hook that pitted younger Hunger Games victors with previous winners who were much older (if not outright elderly). It’s frankly less blasé about the whole “cheer for the heroes hiss at the villains” element that made The Hunger Games grotesquely crowd-pleasing, which makes it a more compelling and honest popcorn entertainment. Oh, and if you want to count Summit Entertainment for the few years during which it was independent before being bought by Lionsgate in 2012, The Twilight Saga: New Moon ($296 million in 2009) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($300 million in 2010) both earned around $366 million in adjusted sales.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line Cinema Movies )
$377 million in 2003/$577 million adjusted
Bob Shaye’s groundbreaking indie studio came into its own in the 1980s (thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which gained it the nickname “The House That Freddy Built”) and 1990s (after being acquired by Time Warner). It had its finger on the pulse of youth-skewing pop culture with films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, Mortal Kombat, Austin Powers, Blade and Rush Hour. It essentially set the template for modern fantasy blockbuster filmmaking with Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation. The three Lord of the Rings films were all massive hits, but the trilogy capper won Best Picture and Best Director along with nine other Oscars and became just the second film ever to top $1 billion in global grosses. They merged with Warner Bros. in 2008, where they still managed to eventually create one of the only post-Avengers cinematic universe success stories with The Conjuring.
Shrek 2 (DreamWorks Animation Movies )
$441 million in 2004/$666 million adjusted
The second Mike Myers/Eddie Murphy/Cameron Diaz fractured fairy-tale rom-com (about the ogre and the human/ogre princess living as a married couple) is one of the best mainstream romantic comedies ever made. It was also a classic breakout sequel. Shrek opened with $42 million, legged out to $267 million, and won the first-ever “Best Animated Feature” Oscar. Shrek 2 earned $108 million (including a record $44 million Saturday) amid the Fri-Sun portion of a $128 million Wed-Sun debut. The “what happens after Happily Ever After” sequel brought Jennifer Saunders and Rupert Everett into the mix. It also introduced an eventual spin-off character in Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. With $441 million domestic and $919 million worldwide, it was also, until Top Gun: Maverick just this summer, the leggiest $100 million-plus opener of all time. It represents the start of DWA’s peak period (2004-2012) as an animation juggernaut to be reckoned with.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony/Columbia Movies )
$804 million in 2021/$804 million adjusted
We can debate whether Columbia and Sony should be divided up since Sony only bought the studio in 1989 (following brief ownership by Coca-Cola). However, Spider-Man: No Way Home sold more tickets than even Columbia’s Ghostbusters ($229 million in 1984/$667 million adjusted), so it’s a moot point. Released just eight months ago, the Sony/Marvel flick opened with $260 million before legging out, partially to a near-total lack of early 2022 tentpole or awards season competition, to $804 million. The film was an MCU Tom Holland threequel and a quasi-sequel to both Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy and Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man duology. It became a kind of multigenerational nostalgic event film while becoming more of an event as the year-end fantasy dynamo that it likely would have in July 2021, even in non-Covid circumstances. Sure, it perhaps only proved that theatres were safe for Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it helped theatres turn death into a fighting chance to live.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Walt Disney Movies )
$184 million between 1937 and 1993/$1.021 billion adjusted
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is tops with $1.021 billion in adjusted earnings. However, it earned just $66 million out of $184 million in its original theatrical run, with most of its money coming from decades of reissues and rereleases in the pre-VHS/DVD days. Star Wars: The Force Awakens earned nearly $1 billion in raw domestic earnings from a record-smashing $248 million opening weekend, becoming still the third leggiest “opened on a Friday” $100 million opener behind Wonder Woman and Top Gun: Maverick. Whether they should both be on this list is perhaps worth debating. They are tenth and eleventh on the all-time list, and it’s still astonishing that any movie sold nearly 110 million tickets in a time with DVDs, streaming, social media, video games and a bazillion other entertainment distractions. I’m guessing you don’t need me to explain the historical and artistic significance of Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film or J.J. Abrams’ sub-genre-defining blockbuster (it didn’t invent the legacy sequel, but it popularized it).
This Oscar-nominated adaptation of Peter Blakely’s religious horror novel became a cultural cornerstone, arriving in the middle of a ten-year run (from Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 to Halloween in 1978) of adult-skewing, borderline prestige horror movies. It was and remained the biggest inflation-adjusted R-rated grosser. It was the fourth-biggest such earner in raw grosses behind Beverly Hills Cop in 1984, Terminator 2 in 1991 and Saving Private Ryan in 1998, when the “version you’ve never seen” extended cut earned another $40 million domestic in late 2000. I prefer the grindhouse thrills of Richard Donner’s The Omen. Still, I’ve seen William Friedkin’s religious chiller enough times (including in theaters in late 2000) to understand why it was a barnburner 49 years ago. I’m pretty fond of The Exorcist III, but otherwise, this “five movies and a television show” franchise is a classic reminder that every hit movie isn’t automatically a brand.
Titanic (Paramount Movies )
$600 million in 1997, $59 million in 2012/$1.27 billion adjusted
Barring an inexplicable miracle, there will probably never again be a movie that sells as many tickets in North America as did James Cameron’s Oscar-winning disaster melodrama. It opened with $28 million in December 1997, just before the Christmas break. It earned $35 million on its second weekend and $33 million over New Year’s weekend. And then it kept going, topping the domestic box office a record 15 consecutive weekends amid the end of 1997 and the first three months of 1998. Sure, its competition was light (save for maybe The Wedding Singer and U.S. Marshalls) and many of its “victims” (Dark City, Wild Things, Deep Rising, etc.) became cult favourites. Still, the initial theatrical run for the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet masterpiece was and is unprecedented. Top Gun: Maverick will soon pass Titanic’s $659 million lifetime gross, but Titanic’s upcoming Valentine’s Day reissue next year may put it back on top of Paramount’s mountain.
E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal Movies )
$359 million in 1982, $434 million overall/$1.329 billion adjusted
Steven Spielberg’s definitive coming-of-age fantasy just celebrated its 40th anniversary. This is probably the film that most represents Spielberg as a filmmaker. It mixes heart-tugging melodrama, gee-whiz fantasy and not a little grim real-world subject matter (the subtext of almost all your favourite 80s classics was about children coping with divorce, dysfunction and stereotypically “broken” families). It’s also just a spectacular bit of pop mythmaking that (relatively speaking) deserved to become the biggest-grossing movie of all time. In a time when the mere idea of huge weekends was becoming normalized, E.T.’s $11.8 million opening weekend initially ranked fifth, behind Star Trek ($11.9 million in 1979), Rocky III ($12.4 million in 1982), Superman II ($14.1 million in 1981) and Star Trek II ($14.3 million in 1982). It had five weekends after that earned $12.6-$13.7 million, which would all rank third-through eighth biggest weekends, opening or otherwise. It ranked #1 for 16 non-consecutive weekends, which is still a record.
Star Wars (20th Century Fox)
$307 million in 1977, $460 million overall/$1.669 billion adjusted
What is there to say and George Lucas’ culture-defining, industry-changing, world-altering sci-fi swashbuckler? Well, it’s a classic example of “rip-off, don’t remake,” as Star Wars only exists because Lucas couldn’t get the rights to remake Flash Gordon. Even as it spawned a trilogy, another trilogy, and then another seemingly unending stream of movies and television spin-offs, the first Star Wars was a 90% stand-alone picture. Had it bombed or not spawned a sequel, there would have been few loose ends (Vader gets away, but so what?) and nothing that required additional expansion, explanation or context. The single 121-minute feature remains a hybrid of gee-whiz popcorn fantasy, top-tier special effects and a certain grounded 70’s film school/political sentiment that somehow (thanks to Marcia Lucas’ editing?) works as an unimpeachable blockbuster classic. Moreover, unlike too many modern copycats, it didn’t wait for the sequel to give us the good stuff.
Gone with the Wind (MGM)
$189 million in 1939, $200 million overall/$1.895 billion adjusted
Yes, the film’s politics have aged only slightly better than Birth of a Nation. Yes, the studio that initially released it has been on glorified life support (primarily reliant on the 007 franchise) for as long as I’ve been alive before finally being sold to Amazon in the last year. Gone with the Wind is the biggest-grossing movie in adjusted grosses and “tickets sold.” It was and is an encapsulation of the modern blockbuster formula. You take a popular source material (Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel) and fill it with a mix of-the-moment movie stars (Clark Gable) and lesser-known breakout performers (Vivian Leigh) as the marquee characters. You make the biggest damn movie possible. It’s a studio formula that worked for everything from (relatively speaking) The Godfather to Superman to Mamma Mia! to Gone Girl. The obvious caveat is that Victor Fleming’s $4 million, 221-minute epic (not counting intermissions and interludes) opened amid a time when theatrical movies were among the only games in town.