The 35 Most Profitable Movies of All Time, Based on Return on Investment
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.
1. Deep Throat (1972)
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.
2. Facing the Giants (2006)
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.
3. Paranormal Activity (2007)
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.
4. Fireproof (2008)
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.
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
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.
6. The Gallows (2015)
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.
7. Eraserhead (1977)
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.
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
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.
9. The Big Parade (1925)
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.
10. The Devil Inside (2012)
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.
11. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
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.
12. Peter Pan (1953)
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.
13. Cat People (1942)
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.
14. Waiting… (2005)
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….
15. God’s Not Dead (2014)
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.
16. Grease (1978)
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.
17. High School Musical (2006)
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.
18. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
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.
19. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
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.
20. Insidious (2011)
Another horror film that managed to scare up a huge audience, Insidious possesses an ROI of 2246 percent.
21. Split (2011)
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.
22. Intouchables (2012)
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.
23. Young Frankenstein (1974)
This comedic reimagining of Frankenstein was a major hit for Mel Brooks and ended up with a total ROI of 1954 percent.
24. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
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.
25. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Earning a well-deserved ROI of 1771 percent, Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut gunned its way to becoming the tenth most profitable movie.
26. Jaws (1975)
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.
27. Annabelle (2014)
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.
28. Beauty And The Beast (1991)
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.
29. The King’s Speech (2010)
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.
30. Magic Mike (2012)
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.
31. The Fault In Our Stars (2014)
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.
32. The Purge (2013)
Writer/director James DeMonaco's innovative take on anarchy ended up scoring an ROI of 1097 percent—and launching a full franchise.
33. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning romantic drama earned nearly $385 million worldwide for an ROI of 1067 percent.
34. Black Swan (2010)
Full of hallucinations, ballet, and (of course) swans, Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller performed brilliantly, achieving an ROI of 1039 percent.
35. Unfriended (2015)
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.