Biggest box office winners of all time
Were it not for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Hollywood would start rolling out its biggest blockbusters right about now. Instead, everything from “A Quiet Place Part II” to “Mulan” to “Black Widow” has been pushed back to a later date. Now more than ever, viewers faced with the difficult circumstances of isolation or quarantine could use some reprieve or distraction. Maybe some crave the spectacular, the kind of movie that rolls out to massive anticipation before raking in billions at the box office. Or maybe there are some folks out there who just want to revisit a classic like “The Graduate,” which redefined cinema and made a boatload of cash in the process.
Whatever the motivations, there are over 100 years of movie history to choose from. One could go back as far as the silent era to find big-budget spectacle, in movies such as Buster Keaton’s “The General” or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Each decade that followed delivered its own version of pure movie magic, cranking big productions and big effects out of big budgets. Then there are the little movies that could: mid-budget films that captured the zeitgeist and rode to the top of the box office as a result.
Because box office numbers matter now more than ever, it can cast the medium of cinema in an unnecessarily competitive light. On the other hand, a number of history’s foremost box office winners happen to be excellent films. Consequently, one could use gross earnings as a barometer of sorts—especially when wading through bygone eras. After all, it takes strong word of mouth and a passionate fan base to drive success, and that’s usually correlated with a certain tier of quality.
Using data from Box Office Mojo as of April 2020, Stacker compiled a list of the 100 biggest box office winners of all time. It covers all of movie history and relies purely on domestic box office gross, with earnings adjusted for ticket price inflation. While the list is predictably chock-full of musicals, historical epics, comic book adaptations, and franchises, it also features the occasional heart-wrenching drama, classic comedy, or head-spinning horror. Here are the biggest box office winners of all time.
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#100. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $489,147,661
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,468,500
Lukewarm reception to the first “Star Wars” prequel put a damper in this follow-up’s momentum. It made hundreds of millions at the box office, but wasn’t even the top-grossing film that year. Written and directed by George Lucas, it portrays the forbidden romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala.
#99. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $489,735,899
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,532,800
What begins as a search for lost diamonds eventually takes the fearless Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to a secret underground temple. Critics and audiences weren’t as enamored as before, but the movie still made a bundle. A fifth installment is reportedly in the works.
#98. MASH (1970)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $491,120,956
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,684,200
Before it was a groundbreaking TV series, “MASH” was an equally groundbreaking dramedy from director Robert Altman. Set during the Korean War, it chronicles the lives of various medical staff. That it made nearly half a billion dollars (when adjusted for inflation) at the domestic box office seems like a small miracle in today’s Hollywood.
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#97. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $491,131,934
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,685,400
Ken Kesey’s iconic novel leaped onto the big screen in 1975, with a little help from producer Michael Douglas. A smash hit in more ways than one, the film killed at the box office and swept the top five Academy Award categories. It was a feat that hadn’t been accomplished for 40 years.
#96. Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $492,253,520
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,808,000
Walt Disney spent more money than ever before when financing this famously complicated shoot. The investment paid off and it was one of the most popular movies he ever produced. Presented in widescreen Panavision, it follows a shipwrecked family as they survive on a deserted island.
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#95. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $492,870,118
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,875,400
Long before reality shows like “The Amazing Race,” there was this madcap adventure with a similar premise. Packed to the gills with comedy legends, it tackles the theme of unrelenting greed in brilliant slapstick fashion. A number of different cuts exist, including a 197-minute reconstruction of its original roadshow presentation.
#94. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $493,103,400
- Estimated tickets sold: 53,900,900
The Transformers are back for another epic battle in this 2009 sequel. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox reprise their roles and must work with the Transformers to do battle against the evil Decepticon. The movie holds a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.
#93. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $497,669,333
- Estimated tickets sold: 54,400,000
Allied POWs are tasked with building an important bridge in this WWII adventure. It’s another acclaimed masterpiece from director David Lean, who crafted some of Hollywood’s foremost historical epics. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning seven.
#92. Men in Black (1997)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $499,651,777
- Estimated tickets sold: 54,616,700
Here come the Men in Black; they’re protecting the world from all sorts of invasive alien species. The beloved franchise kicked off at its highest point in terms of reception and domestic box numbers alike. Its lowest point came in the form of a recent flop known as “Men in Black: International.”
#91. Twister (1996)
- Domestic lifetime gross (price adjusted): $500,304,968
- Estimated tickets sold: 54,688,100
Cinematographer-turned-action director Jan De Bont followed 1994’s “Speed” with this movie about storm-chasers. It was the second-highest-grossing film of the year, bested only by “Independence Day.” Author Michael Crichton co-wrote the screenplay with then-wife Anne-Marie Martin and the two earned a Razzie Award for their efforts (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million).
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