If one didn’t know any better, it could easily be assumed that virtually every one of the most financially successful movies of all time has been released within the past 10 years or so. Actually, not a single one of them has. Hollywood studios have long had a tradition of announcing their films’ box-office figures without adjusting them for inflation, simply because it makes the movies appear to be bigger hits than they really are. And the entertainment media have repeated the practice, simply because they’re lazy. Here are history’s real top 10 movies (domestic grosses), with ever-rising ticket prices taken into account.
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ($863 million, 1937)
Feature-length animated films have become such a commonplace, and profitable, part of the contemporary cinema landscape that it’s only natural to assume that had Mr. Walt Disney not invented the genre back in the 1930s, somebody else would have. Yet Disney’s studio had the niche to itself for years. Warner Bros., keeper of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and several other indelible cartoon characters, was content with short films, leaving Disney to build a classic library with motion pictures such as Pinocchio, Bambi, Peter Pan and many more. But Snow White was the first. It’s the oldest movie on this list, because Disney’s frequent re-releases — in 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 1993 — helped keep the title in the public consciousness. Released on DVD in 1994, the film can also be found in many home video collections.
9. The Exorcist ($875 million, 1973)
Hollywood pumps out a lot of horror movies, many of which aren’t very scary. Many that are are simply knockoffs of this one. But for shear dread and terror, few films have surpassed The Exorcist. The movie’s shoot was an arduous one. A slew of actors turned down various parts because of the nature of the material, as well as a handful of potential directors. Eventual director William Friedkin extended the movie’s 85-day shooting schedule to 225 days, and employed unorthodox methods like firing a gun on set to elicit surprise from his cast. Actress Ellen Burstyn seriously injured her spine doing a stunt. Reviewers, many of whom appeared upset by its content, weren’t particularly kind to The Exorcist when it came out. Rolling Stone magazine called it “religious porn.” But it has since become regarded by many film scholars as the scariest movie ever made.
8. Doctor Zhivago ($983 million, 1965)
This epic about Russia in the early 20th century wasn’t actually shown there until 1994. The source work, a novel by Boris Pasternak, was not acceptable to Soviet rulers, but the film was hugely popular when it debuted in Europe and the United States during the height of the Cold War. The Russian fashions seen in the movie became all the rage in the West, and as star Omar Sharif has mentioned in a thousand interviews, Lara, the character played by Julie Christie, became one of the most popular names for newborns after Zhivago came out. Reviews of the David Lean picture were tepid upon its release, although it has since grown in critical stature. Because filming in the USSR was impossible, most of the movie’s winter scenes were shot in Spain, and since snow was scarce there — and there was no CGI to fall back on — an abundance of beeswax was used.
7. Jaws ($1.01 billion, 1975)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jaws became Hollywood’s first blockbuster. What’s remarkable is how good the movie turned out to be. Conventional wisdom today is that word of mouth made Jaws a hit. It certainly helped, but first Universal blanketed television with commercials, distributed a plethora of marketing tie-ins (beach towels, shark’s-tooth necklaces and more), and then deposited the movie in many more theaters than was customary then, where it stayed for months. But the picture’s production was a nightmare. Scores of people fussed with the script, which ultimately bore little resemblance to Peter Benchley’s novel. The shoot went 154 days over schedule, largely because the four mechanical sharks director Steven Spielberg had assembled seldom worked. As a result, they’re suggested more than seen in the film, and the movie is far better for it.
6. The Ten Commandments ($1.03 billion, 1956)
Cecil B. DeMille was determined to end his directing career with a bang, and did he ever. This Biblical film hasn’t aged as well as some of the other pictures on this list. A dramatization of the story of Exodus, in which Moses (Charlton Heston) leads the Hebrews to freedom, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won only one, for visual effects. The parting of the Red Sea impressed, although all the filmmakers did was shoot water pouring out of a tank and then run it backwards. But The Ten Commandments did much to usher in the golden age of Hollywood epics. It has been taken to task for a lack of Biblical accuracy, but the film’s writers didn’t use the Bible as their only source; the Koran was also referenced. The movie has aired on ABC every Easter weekend since 1973, all 219 minutes of it, uncut.
5. Titanic ($1.07 billion, 1997)
During its production, this disaster epic had disaster of another kind written all over it. Director James Cameron envisioned his film on a vast scale, which came as an unpleasant surprise to his bosses at 20th Century Fox. The film’s shoot went over schedule, from 138 to 160 days, and way over budget, ballooning to $200 million, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Injuries had become rampant on the set, and Cameron’s temper won him few friends. Everyone expected the picture to bomb, from the media and studio execs to the director himself. But then audiences saw the film. Most of its negative press came years after its opening, a reaction to its enormous popularity. The reviews upon its release were glowing, and Titanic, more than any other movie on this list, lured repeat audiences, mostly teenage girls.
(Slideshow photo credit: © 20th Century Fox)
4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial ($1.123 billion, 1982)
It would be another decade before filmmaker Steven Spielberg received the critical acclaim of his career, winning Best Director Oscars for a pair of World War II pictures — Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But E.T. remains his best-loved and most affecting film, and is highly representative of his body of work. Critics have called the movie a fairy tale, and likened the alien to Peter Pan and even Jesus Christ. Spielberg had nothing quite so lofty in mind, but wanted simply to tell an autobiographical story drawn from his feelings of abandonment after his parents got divorced when he was young and growing up in a far from idealized California suburb. The movie’s alien was considered so ugly at first that the makers of M&M’s candies refused to be associated with the picture; Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces were used instead to lure the little guy.
3. The Sound of Music ($1.127 billion, 1965)
Few films are as sentimental and sugary sweet as this one. It’s a quality that has made The Sound of Music a target for vociferous derision, as well as a fan favorite for generations. Famed film critic Pauline Kael, reviewing for McCall’s magazine, wrote of the movie, “We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” McCall’s fired her shortly after that. It was those very “sickly, goody-goody songs,” courtesy of Rodgers and Hammerstein, that made the movie such a hit, and continue to draw audiences to it on television, including in sing-along versions. The film, adapted from the Broadway musical, came along at the tail end of that art form’s golden age, and benefited from the casting of Julie Andrews, at the height of her popularity, and Christopher Plummer as Capt. von Trapp.
2. Star Wars ($1.4 billion, 1977)
The movie landed on the cover of Time magazine upon its release, a much bigger deal four decades ago than it would be today, but otherwise anticipation for Star Wars was close to non-existent. Once it did arrive press coverage of the film made it appear puzzling and anachronistic. The 1970s were a time for dark, edgy fare in American cinema, from which Star Wars could not have been further removed. Its director, George Lucas, said he had been inspired by adventure serials of the 1940s and ’50s, which meant little to the young people who would turn out for his film. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had ushered in the era of the blockbuster two years earlier, and was proof that audiences would turn out in droves for the right picture, at least during the summer. But Star Wars was an even bigger smash, and one of a kind. Despite its success, there have been few imitators.
1. Gone With the Wind ($1.6 billion, 1939)
From the very beginning, the filmmakers aimed to take the book, a publishing sensation, and transform it into a movie that was an even bigger spectacle. They succeeded with flying colors, every step along the way. Clark Gable was quickly cast as Rhett Butler, but filling the role of Scarlett O’Hara was drawn out for publicity purposes, with a casting call that included 1,400 actresses, from Katharine Hepburn to Lucille Ball to Shelley Winters. The part ultimately went to the little-known British actress Vivien Leigh. A gaggle of screenwriters worked 20-hour days hacking away at the epic novel, although the film’s final cut still clocked in at 3 hours and 44 minutes, longer than any movie before and most since.
(Editor’s note: Sources include BoxOfficeMojo.com.)
The list of Hollywood’s top 10 all-time box office hits, without adjusting for inflation, below, includes just two of the films mentioned above. Not only were half of these pictures released within the past 10 years, most of them are also franchise titles.
1. Avatar ($760 million, 2009)
2. Titanic ($658 million, 1997)
3. Marvel’s The Avengers ($554 million, 2012)
4. The Dark Knight ($533 million, 2008)
5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace ($474 million, 1999)
6. Star Wars ($460 million, 1977)
7. Shrek 2 ($441 million, 2004)
8. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial ($435 million, 1982)
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($423 million, 2006)
10. The Lion King ($422 million, 1994)