Cars Movie Disney Pixar

Cars has the second-best gross margin among Disney Pixar movies, but one other earned more gross profit. Credit: Disney Pixar.

Now that we've seen how Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Pixar films compare as a whole, it's time to take a look at the most profitable individual productions. Cars is an obvious winner, of course, but at least two more of the top five might surprise you.

One, in particular, generated over $260 million in home video sales on the way to becoming Pixar's second-most profitable movie since the Disney takeover. Another scored a near-30% profit margin thanks to savvy budgeting. The following article reveals these surprising winners while offering insights on the entire Disney Pixar slate.

As investors, it helps to know what's working and what isn't. That's especially true for Studio Entertainment, the segment responsible for Pixar and Marvel movies and the fourth-quarter's fastest growing. Revenue improved 18% and operating profit doubled in Q4. New Pixar films could keep the gravy train chugging along, but only if the team learns from its history.

The top Disney Pixar films

Ready to find out more about Pixar's biggest winners and losers?  Good. Sit back, salt the popcorn, and let's start the countdown!

8. Cars 2 

A huge letdown financially and poorly received by fans, Cars 2 is the only Pixar film to earn a less than 20% gross margin on box office and home video sales. (15.24%, specifically.) Disney Pixar spent an estimated $275 million to produce, market, and distribute Cars 2

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 24, 2011

$559.9 million

$105.8 million

  • 4th highest-grossing spy comedy

  • 55th among feature-length IMAX movies

  • 31st among computer-animated films

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

7. Brave

The lowest worldwide box office gross since Cars, which cost $65 million less to produce. 

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 22, 2012

$538.9 million

$144.7 million

  • 6th highest-gross animated fantasy

  • 8th best among opening weekends for a June film

  • 25th among 3D movies

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

6. WALL-E 

One of just two Pixar movies to earn less than $300 million at the worldwide box office. Adding over $190 million in home video sales pushed the film's gross margin above 21%.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 27, 2008

$521.3 million

$153.8 million

  • Highest-grossing animated sci-fi film of all time

  • 6th among films about cyborgs, androids, or robots

  • 9th highest-grossing film worldwide in 2008

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

5. Monsters University

One of only three Pixar movies to command a $200 million production budget. Ranked last among the eight Disney Pixar movies in terms of home video sales at just $130.4 million.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 21, 2013

$743.6 million

$199.6 million

  • Top-ranked among comedy films set in college

  • 5th among prequels

  • 9th among computer-animated films

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

4.Ratatouille 

Brad Bird's Pixar follow-up after the success of The Incredibles also passed the $600 million mark worldwide and earned an estimated 29.56% profit margin.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 29, 2007

$623.7 million

$241.3 million

  • Top-ranked among movies about cooking

  • 9th best opening weekend for a rated G film

  • 11th highest-grossing movie of 2007

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

3. Cars 

The movie that's almost as synonymous with Pixar's success as Toy Story, and the top earner in terms of home video sales.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 9, 2006

$461.9 million

$249.1 million

  • Top-ranked among car racing movies

  • 3rd among movies released in 2006

  • 14th-best opening weekend for a June movie

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

2.Up 

A close second to Cars in terms of home video sales, resulting in a 31.89% estimated gross profit margin.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

May 29, 2009

$731.3 million

$316.5 million

  • 5th highest-grossing among films released in 2009

  • 62nd all-time in terms of worldwide receipts

  • 10th among films in their fourth week of release

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates.

And the most profitable film in the Disney Pixar portfolio is ...

1.Toy Story 3 

The only Pixar movie to earn over $1 billion at the box office and more than $440 million in estimated gross profit. For perspective, both A Bug's Life and Toy Story generated less than $400 million in global ticket sales when they were released.

Released
Worldwide Box Office
Estimated Profit
Notable Rankings

June 18, 2010

$1,063.2 million

$447.5 million

  • 2nd in computer-animated movies

  • 6th among feature-length IMAX movies

  • 13th all-time highest-grossing movie worldwide

Sources: Box Office Mojo, author's estimates. 

I'll grant there weren't many surprises at the bookends, but the top five must have been at least a little jarring. Up as Pixar's second-biggest profit producer? I'd have thought Cars given the merchandising muscle of Lightning McQueen and his pals. 

Inside Out Disny Pixar Poster Horizontal

Inside Out is due in theaters on June 19, 2015. Credit: Disney Pixar.

What to expect from Disney Pixar now

As well as Pixar has done historically, Disney Animation has been the bigger catalyst recently. Frozen is the top-grossing animated film of all time. Wreck-It-Ralph also did well and Big Hero 6 is earning raves along with profits. Adopting the look and feel of a Pixar film in well-developed November release is paying off well for the in-house animation team. In response, Pixar is adding new projects to its slate. The Good Dinosaur opens next November, just five months after Inside Out debuts.

Neither before nor after the Disney acquisition has Pixar released two feature films in a single year. What could that mean? History says to expect at least $650 million in worldwide ticket sales and $230 million in operating profit from each -- a meaningful catalyst that's almost certainly not accounted for in the current stock price.

Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Apple, Google (A and C class), Netflix, and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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