When it comes to box office dollars, the recipe for a successful movie is pretty simple: small budget + massive ticket sales = huge profit. If done correctly, this means an enormous return on investment (ROI) for the clever minds behind the film. According to data from The Numbers, the 35 movies below have mastered that moneymaking recipe to become some of the most profitable films of all time, based on ROI.
While studio executives have long labeled an X (or NC-17) rating a kiss of death for box office totals, this infamous Linda Lovelace flick proved differently. The movie ushered in an era of what became known as “porno chic”—dirty movies that featured real actors, bona fide plots, and notable production values in an attempt to lure a more mainstream moviegoing public. The idea worked: Deep Throat ended up earning an ROI of 90,014 percent—a number that has kept it in the top spot for nearly 50 years, with no indication it’s likely to lose its top ranking any time soon.
Sports movies have often led to major box office hits. But Alex Kendrick’s Facing the Giants had one additional plot point going for it: It’s a sports movie and a Christian drama, a sub-genre that has been turning modestly budgeted films into box office behemoths over the past several years. In this case, it meant an ROI of 38,451 percent.
Written and directed by Oren Peli, this classic found footage horror film scared up nearly $90 million in theaters and ending up with an ROI of 19,761 percent.
Two years after directing Facing the Giants, Alex Kendrick directed Fireproof, another Christian drama—this one focused on the deterioration of the marriage between a fire captain (played by teen heartthrob-turned-Christian movie star Kirk Cameron) and his hospital administrator wife and how the threat of divorce turns him into a changed man. The film was largely savaged by critics, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a huge box office hit and the highest-grossing indie film of 2008. Its 11,319 percent ROI also made it one of the most profitable films of all time.
Tobe Hooper’s classic 1974 horror film is about Leatherface, a chainsaw-wielding maniac, and his cannibalistic family who stalk and torture a group of teens who stumble upon their home while visiting the grave and former home of their grandfather. Though the no-budget film spawned a full-on franchise—complete with sequels, remakes, reboots, and more to come—the original, and its 10,018 percent ROI, still stand alone.
Though it’s hard to predict precisely which movies will become box office hits, it’s fairly safe to say that horror movies—and low-budget horror movies in particular—tend to fare the best in terms of profitability, partially because it’s a genre that can be made well even if it’s made cheaply. Which is certainly the case with Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff The Gallows, a found footage horror movie that sees a cursed play come back to haunt a small town 20 years after a high school tragedy. An abysmal 15 percent Rotten Tomatoes score hardly matters when you’ve got a 6798 percent ROI.
David Lynch announced his arrival in the most Lynchian way possible with this surreal and totally bizarre movie that deals with male paranoia in a surprisingly personal way. Though Lynch has said relatively little about the movie himself, preferring that people maintain their own ideas of what it’s about, it’s rumored that it was largely inspired by the birth of Lynch’s daughter Jennifer (also a director), who had clubbed feet that required corrective surgery. Whatever the case, the movie—and its 4553 percent ROI—launched Lynch as a major new talent, and led to his next film: 1980’s The Elephant Man, which earned eight Oscar nominations.
Six years after former vice president Al Gore unsuccessfully made a run for president in 2000, he reemerged as an authority on climate change. It’s not often that a documentary has lured so many viewers to a theater—or inspired so many of those viewers to take action after the fact and create a whole new generation of environmental activists. Ultimately, the $1 million production saw a 4542 percent ROI.
In 1992, nearly 70 years after its release, King Vidor’s The Big Parade—an acclaimed silent World War I film—was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The film, which was adapted from Laurence Stallings’s autobiographical book Plumes, was unique among the war films that came before it in that it didn’t shy away from addressing the loss of human life and the true cost of war. It paved the way for many war films that came after it, including Lewis Milestone’s Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front, though none ever matched its 4396 percent ROI.
Hoping to replicate the success (and format) of Paranormal Activity, The Devil Inside—a similarly documentary-style film, directed and co-written by William Brent Bell—managed to achieve an ROI of 3642 percent. Though it was not nearly as supernatural of an outcome as Oren Peli managed with Paranormal Activity, it's enough to earn the movie a spot right below his film in terms of profit.
Though Charles Schulz wasn’t particularly excited about getting into animated movies with the Peanuts, and CBS reportedly hated the final result of A Charlie Brown Christmas, this beloved special has been delighting audiences for more than half-a-century—on television, home video, and via special theatrical screenings during the holiday season. All of which has led to its 3438 percent ROI.
This Walt Disney classic, with its widespread appeal to children and adults alike, had a total ROI of 3394 percent. Never growing up appears to be a profitable endeavor.
Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic proves that horror films have long been a profitable endeavor. In this case, a young woman named Irena fears that she is descended from a mythical family of felines and that any feelings of passion could turn her into a blood-thirsty panther. None of this dissuades her boyfriend, Oliver, who asks her to marry him nonetheless. When Irena withholds her passion for her husband for his own sake, he falls in love with another woman—and all hell breaks loose. The quirky story was like catnip to audiences, who helped it drum up a 3330 percent ROI.
In 2005, filmmaker Rob McKittrick turned his years of experience waiting tables into a cult classic comedy, appropriately titled Waiting…, that featured a stellar cast of soon-to-be superstars including Ryan Reynolds, Anna Faris, Justin Long, and David Koechner. The film developed a surprise following that led to a 3111 percent ROI on its $1.1 million budget—and a 2009 sequel, Still Waiting….
A huge hit with Christian moviegoers, this Kevin Sorbo starrer scored an ROI of 3091 percent and managed to stick around in theaters for a whopping 20 weeks.
An American classic that is still finding new audiences, Grease sang and danced its way to the near top of the list with an ROI of 2969 percent.
A descendant of Grease, this Disney musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet introduced Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, and a host of new young actors to the world and kicked off a franchise that included three films in the original series, six spin-offs, and a Disney+ series that debuted in November 2019 and has already been renewed for a second season. It also earned a 2843 percent ROI.
The Star Wars franchise has come a long way since its original entry was released more than 40 years ago. In addition to holding the top spot on the list of highest-grossing domestic movies adjusted for inflation, the film’s relatively low budget of $11 million and enormous 2563 percent ROI make it one of the most profitable films ever made, too.
The seventh horror movie on this list (and the second with "Paranormal Activity" in its title), Paranormal Activity 2 ended up with an ROI of 2474 percent, even though its $3 million budget dwarfed the original film's.
Another horror film that managed to scare up a huge audience, Insidious possesses an ROI of 2246 percent.
John Baer/ © 2016 Universal Studios
M. Night Shyamalan went back to his indie roots for Split, the second film in his Unbreakable trilogy, by shooting the film—which starred James McAvoy in a captivating performance—for a mere $5 million. It’s box office total of more than $108 million meant an impressive 2077 percent ROI.
This French buddy comedy, directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, became the second highest-grossing film in France within a few weeks of its original release. The film, which earned eight César Award nominations—and won for Best Actor for Omar Sy—became a hit worldwide, earning more than $231 million and a 2043 percent ROI.
This comedic reimagining of Frankenstein was a major hit for Mel Brooks and ended up with a total ROI of 1954 percent.
Frank Capra's uplifting holiday classic is the oldest movie on this list, the source of the idea that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings, and a major hit, with an ROI of 1804 percent.
Earning a well-deserved ROI of 1771 percent, Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut gunned its way to becoming the tenth most profitable movie.
This classic film, with its abundance of blood, screaming, and somewhat-obvious shark props, racked up an ROI of 1755 percent and kept beachgoers out of the water for years.
Yes, another horror film! John R. Leonetti's Annabelle managed to creep its way up to more than $250 million in ticket sales worldwide, yielding an ROI of 1408 percent.
The second Disney movie appearing on this list, this classic love story earned the biggest profit and started out with the biggest budget. What does that mean? Well, in this case, an ROI of 1340 percent.
Earning an ROI of 1209 percent, this historical drama was a major hit, starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech therapist.
Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey didn't have to bare it all to drum up more than $170 million in ticket sales, leaving director Steven Soderbergh with an ROI of 1181 percent.
Based on the incredibly popular book by John Green, the big screen adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars took our tears and turned them into a profit of nearly $150 million. That’s an ROI of 1119 percent for those keeping count.
Writer/director James DeMonaco's innovative take on anarchy ended up scoring an ROI of 1097 percent—and launching a full franchise.
Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning romantic drama earned nearly $385 million worldwide for an ROI of 1067 percent.
Full of hallucinations, ballet, and (of course) swans, Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller performed brilliantly, achieving an ROI of 1039 percent.
Shot on a $1 million budget, Unfriended—a found footage horror movie directed by relative newcomer Levan Gabriadze—took in more than $60 million worldwide, leaving it with an ROI of 1011 percent.
What began as director George Miller's ambitious action film about a solitary cop (Mel Gibson) on a mission to take down a violent biker gang has evolved into a post-apocalyptic sensory overload of a franchise that now has four films to its credit—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)—and additional sequels in the works. So let's obsess over Miller’s masterpieces even more with these 11 things you might not know about the franchise.
Since the film only had a budget of $350,000, Miller scraped together extra money as an emergency room doctor to keep the movie going. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told CraveOnline. “And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”
Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.
Gibson was black and blue after a recent brawl with “half a rugby team” when his friend asked him to drop him off at his Mad Max audition. Because the agency was also casting “freaks,” they took pictures of Gibson, who was simply waiting around, and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him the role on the spot. In a clip for Scream Factory, Gibson recalled the moment: “It was real weird. [Miller] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”
With barely enough money to finish the original film, Miller offered to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and some of the bikers on set with “slabs” (Australian for a case of 24 cans) of beer, according to The Guardian.
Forget the money required to train stuntmen; Miller and crew hired real bikers to professionally ride into production. In an interview with Motorcyclist Online, actor Tim Burns said about working with them: “[The Vigilanties] all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” Additionally, stuntman Dale Bensch, a member of The Vigilanties, recalled seeing the ad for the shoot at a local bike shop, and took a moment to clarify a mishap that had happened during production. Bensch said, “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me. The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”
During an interview with The Daily Beast, Miller discussed the making of The Road Warrior. Of its inspiration, he said, “I’d lived in a very lovely and sedate city in Melbourne, and during OPEC and the extreme oil crisis—where the only people who could get any gas were emergency workers, firemen, hospital staff, and police—it took 10 days in this really peaceful city for the first shot to be fired, so I thought, ‘What if this happened over 10 years?’”
Upon Fury Road’s release in 2015, social media lit up with complaints that Tom Hardy was underutilized, only there to grunt and utter a couple of one-liners. But just to remind you, in Mad Max 2, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.
On his use of sparse dialogue, Miller told The New York Times, “Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: ‘I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And that was what I tried to do in Mad Max 1, and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with Fury Road.”
Once upon a time Mel Gibson enthusiastically spoke about Beyond Thunderdome, telling Rolling Stone, "[The films are] a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It's something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the ’80s—which can't continue. I say, let's get back to romanticism. And this film [Thunderdome] is actually doing that. It's using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”
Years later, he told Playboy what he really thought of the films, namely that The Road Warrior was his favorite. “It still holds up because it’s so basic,” Gibson said. “It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”
Even though Miller and his producers were on the fence about a third Mad Max, they couldn’t help but give in. "George was sitting and talking to me about … quantum mechanics, I think," Miller’s co-writer Terry Hayes recalled to Rolling Stone. "The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he's got a broad range of interests. And I said something about ‘Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III ...' And he said, 'Well, if there was ...'"
In a 1985 interview with Time Out, Miller recalled the story himself. “We were talking one day and Terry Hayes started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe,” Miller said. “Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that [came in] ... and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story.”
According to Rolling Stone, Tina Turner beat out Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner for the role of Aunty Entity. On her casting, Miller told Time Out, “One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone ‘like Tina Turner’—without even thinking of casting her. We wanted a woman ... we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together—or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor.”
One of the most peculiar quirks of Miller’s franchise has to be his bizarre character names. In an interview with Fandango, Miller explained exactly how he comes up with them: “One of the things is that everything in the story has to have some sort of underlying backstory. Not just every character, but every vehicle, every weapon, every costume—and the same with the language. So [the concept] was always found objects, repurposed. Immortan Joe is a slight adjustment to the word 'immortal.' The character Nux says 'mcfeasting' instead of using the word 'feasting,’” Miller explained, adding that his favorite name of all is Fury Road’s The Dag (played by Abbey Lee). “In Australia, the dag is sort of a goofball-type.”
Perhaps evidenced by Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing role as Imperator Furiosa, Miller is a proud, outspoken feminist. He told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.” That female influence even stretched behind the scenes, with Miller asking his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road. “I said, ‘You have to edit this movie, because it won’t look like every other action movie,” Miller recalled. Moreover, feminist activist Eve Ensler also consulted on the film to offer, according to Ensler herself, “perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones.”