What is The Most Successful Hollywood Movie of All Time?

What is the Most Successful Hollywood Movie of All Time?

LAST UPDATED: 25th May 2023

Well, it depends how you look at it. We took a data-dive to find out.

You can click on the legend to filter by decade. Rollover each blob to reveal the film.
Top 500 movies grossing $300bn+ adjusted for inflation (2022 $dollars) // *=to date // source The-Numbers.com

The most common answer to the question What is The Most Successful Hollywood Movie? is of course Avatar. James Cameron’s 2010 masterpiece grossed close to $3bn worldwide, very closely followed by Avengers: End Game at $2.8bn.

Avatar 2: The Way of Water is currently at $2bn $2.3bn worldwide gross and still climbing. It’s doubtful it will reach the celestial heights of the original.

Adjustments Bureau

Note the steady trend of films earning more and more.

Now, while that could be a sign of rising returns, it could also be a side-effect of inflation. So we need to tweak the chart.

Top 500 movies grossing $300bn+ adjusted for inflation (2022 $dollars) // *=to date // source The-Numbers.com

Ahhhh that’s better. And you’ll notice the trend reverses – movies are actually making less money over time. (select different metrics for the Y-axis to see the change).

A few other things spring out immediately.

Legendary blockbusters from the 70s – Star Wars, Jaws, E.T. – take their rightful place. You can suddenly see what a monster hit The Exorcist was. And how incredibly close Titanic ($4.120 bn adjusted gross) comes to taking the top spot from Avatar – $4.121bn adjusted gross. Yes just $1 million dollars in it!

But wait! There is another way of measuring the monetary success of a movie…

Return on Investment

Measuring by sheer box office gross of course privileges blockbuster movies with big marketing budgets.

Whereas tracking the return on investment i.e. the percentage of budget recovered, surfaces some different films and different answers to ‘what is the most successful movie’.

Top 500 movies grossing $300bn+ adjusted for inflation (2022 $dollars) // *=to date // source The-Numbers.com

By this metric Avatar does pretty well (1,233%) but Avatar 2 is struggling to transcend its mighty $400m budget with only 772% returned to date. (Even Titanic only recovers 1,101%).

Several films make so much return on their investment that they effectively break our graph. Can you spot them at the top?

» E.T. (classic) – 7,552% budget recovered, $793m worldwide gross against a budget $10.5m
» Star Wars (of course) – 7,049% – $775m gross against a budget of $11m
» Grease (massive) – 6,605% – $396m – budget $6m
» Jaws (monster hit) – 5,295%, $477m gross, budget $9m
» The Exorcist (first!) – 3,678% – more about horror films later.

You might of predicted those, of course. But did you predict My Fat Greek Wedding (surprise!) – 7,375% recovered – grossing $369m against a budget of $5m?

Or the The King’s Speech (2,849%), Home Alone (2,648%), and breakout sleepers like Crocodile Dundee (3,282%), Slumdog Millionaire (2,523%) and … er, Black Swan?

Yep, hot-mess-Natalie-Portman-ballerina flick Black Swan (2010) did *really* well. It was a literal black swan with $329m gross against a budget of $13m – a 2,534% return. Nice one Darren Aronofsky! (and Natalie Portman star power).

But Budget Recovered is Not A Perfect Measure

You’re probably noticing a pattern here already.

Percent budget recovered is not a perfect metric because it, in turn, privileges movies with small budgets. If we scale the data points by budget, a broad, unmistakable pattern appears.

Can you see it?

Top 500 Most Hollywood Successful Movies by Budget Recovered

This is a screenshot

Yep, lots of low budget films are the winners here. Because they have small budgets, they, unsurprisingly, make a *a lot* of their budget back. That’s circular causation.

Have a Play Yourself

Change the X and Y axes using the grey controls to get different distributions.


Widening the Scope

Another problem. We’ve got a biased sample here. Because we started with the top 500 grossing movies, some not-so-high earning movies (less than $300m worldwide), which were – however – very profitable (700%+ budget recovered), are missing.

Luckily, we happen to have a dataset that we’ve curated since 2008 of all Hollywood movies (link).

So if we widen our pool by folding in 12 years of extra, especially profitable movies (excluding 2021-2022 of course due to the pandemic), and then look at % budget recovered again, we get a very different picture:

Can you see a distinct and interesting pattern among these winners?

Let us highlight it for you.

Why is Hollywood so obsessed with horror movies?

Because they make a **massive** return on their investment.

Of the 55 films in our sample that have earned back more than 20x their budget, 45% were horror movies.
Hollywood Horror Films Reliably Return the Highest Return of Investment
In fact, by this metric, the most successful Hollywood film ever is…

Paranormal Activity

It made 1,293,333% of its piffling $15K budget back.

Allow us to visualise that for you…
Most Profitable Hollywood Movie Ever

Now that’s scary!

Note: some movies might be missing, due to use not doing a full sweep of all films, especially before 2000 (that’ll come when we have the time!)

» Explore the data

: 26th May – Added trend lines to Inflation Adjusted chart, added a zoomed-in screenshot of inflation-adjusted mega hits like Star Wars, ET etc
: 25th May – Added John Wick 4, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Super Mario Bros and Ant-man:Quantumania to the charts
: 23rd May – updated Avatar: Way of Water’s gross to $2.3bn from $2bn
: 8th Feb – launched the graphic

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