The Top 10 Most Profitable Films in Box Office History

When it comes to box office returns, no other film comes close to matching "Avatar".

Tim Beyers
Tim Beyers
Jun 19, 2015 at 8:28AM
Consumer Goods
A row of audience members in a movie theater.

Image source: Getty Images.

Not even a month ago, we examined the biggest opening weekends in box office history, only to see Jurassic World set new records for the biggest domestic and global debuts of all time. Chris Pratt and a supporting cast of CGI dinos scored $208.8 million at U.S. theaters and another $315.6 million abroad.  

Can these dinosaurs stomp their way through the competition to become the most profitable film as well? Perhaps, but the film will need at least a few more weeks in theaters before the necessary ticket sales add up. Until then, here are the 10 most profitable movies in box office history:

Movie Worldwide Gross Est. Box Office Profit Box Office Profit %
Avatar $2,787,965,087   $1,033,982,544  37.09%
Titanic $2,186,772,302  $793,386,151  36.28%
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 $1,341,511,219  $545,755,610  40.68% 
Furious 7 $1,511,322,635  $480,661,318  31.80% 
Marvel's The Avengers
$1,518,594,910  $459,297,455


Frozen $1,274,219,009  $422,109,505  33.13%
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King $1,119,929,521  $394,964,761  35.27%
Avengers: Age of Ultron $1,354,977,275  $337,488,638  24.91%
Iron Man 3 $1,215,439,994  $332,719,997  27.37%
Transformers: Dark of the Moon $1,123,794,079  $291,897,040  25.97%

Source: Box Office Mojo and author estimates

Bigger is usually better but not always
One thing that is clear when reading this list: James Cameron rules the roost with the top two films, and then there is everything else. No wonder 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) is planning on making three Avatar sequels with the director. 

As investors, this table can also help us draw some conclusions about what to expect from the industry:

  1. Expect more episodic movies: When Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL)and Lions Gate (NYSE:LGF-A) announced plans to split the franchise finales for Harry Potter and Twilight into two films, it was a novel idea. Not anymore -- Lions Gate will do it again for the upcoming finale of the The Hunger Games series and again for the Divergent series. Disney(NYSE:DIS) will also play along with Marvel and the Avengers: Infinity War two-parter, which closes out phase 3 of the construction of that cinematic universe. And why not? As Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 has proven, the financial leverage of a combined production and the box office receipts of multiple releases can make for a significant profit margin.
  2. Genre movies have been winning for a long while: While it is tempting to say the rise of genre films such as The Avengers is a recent phenomenon, Return of the King opened in 2003. Studios will keep churning out big ticket genre films so long as audiences keep showing up to see them.
  3. "Franchise fatigue" sounds more worrisome than the numbers show: Five of the 10 most profitable movies in box office history were the third (or later!) installment in a long-term franchise. For executives, that is a sure sign viewers want more epic stories at the cineplex. The risk? Extending a mediocre but financially successful property could eat up profits fast, especially if viewers are not passionate about the original.

Which stocks will win as the film industry continues to evolve? My guess is Disney and Time Warner, which already combine for six of the 10 films on this list. Yet of the two, I suspect that it is Disney that stands to benefit most. Between a slew of new Marvel movies and the highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens due in blockbuster-friendly December, the studio is as well positioned as it has ever been. That will not be changing any time soon.

Put another way: No matter how Jurassic the world gets, when it comes to producing cinematic profits over the long-term, it is Mickey Mouse that still owns the movie house.