Wilkommen and bienvenue! As the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret so archly observed, money makes the world go ’round – and that aphorism holds especially true for the movies. Read on for a list of the ten most profitable movies in history, some of which are sure to surprise even the most cinema-savvy among you. (Our methodology? Take the top ten highest-grossing movies worldwide, deduct the reported budget of each, don’t adjust for inflation, et voila!) There’s only one movie on the list that doesn’t involve an alternative magical realm where anything is possible if you follow your heart, do the right thing, kiss the ugly guy, and so on. You relentless optimists you.
10. $661 million: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has racked up a lot of unreported income sailing the seven seas. At World’s End alone looted audiences to the tune of $961 million. But you’ve got to spend money to steal money. In a globe-trotting adventure that cost $300 million, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush come together in a plot to rescue Sparrow from the dead, unleash the goddess Calypso, defeat Davy Jones and the evil East India Trading Company, and boost eyeliner sales.
9. $769.8 million: Shrek 2 (2004)
The jolly green giant is beloved by kids and their pop culture-savvy parents, which means that Shrek 2 is that rarest of creatures: a film for all ages. (Aw.) It helps to have A-list talent voicing the ogre and his lady love, but Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz don’t come cheap. CGI animation is no bargain, either, which is why this instant kiddie classic cost approximately $150 million. Still, the worldwide box office of $919.8 million probably bought DreamWorks plenty of happily ever after.
8. $788.2 million: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
The Order of the Phoenix is the first of two Harry Potter movies to break the top ten. It can’t be fun competing against your younger, cuter self, but $938.2 million in worldwide box office makes up for a lot. In the fifth installment in six years, Harry and his friends form Dumbledore’s army to battle the evil new Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge. Conjuring up magical creatures and intense battle sequences cost an estimated $150 million, but who cares when the end result kicks so much wizard (and box office) ass?
7. $809.3 million: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
After decades of promising slavering fanboys more stories of Jedi knights and fair princesses, George Lucas finally gave the faithful The Phantom Menace in 1991. The Force was with the reboot of the Star Wars franchise. The backstory of Luke Skywalker’s parents — Queen Amidala and Anakin Skywalker — and the Jedi training of Obi Wan Kenobi, Menace made a mint: $924.3 million. Too bad some of its estimated $115 million budget financed the programming of Jar Jar Binks.
6. $816.9 million: The Dark Knight (2008)
Wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne may be pretty well fixed, but his raspy-voiced Batman alter ego is the one who’s really making bank in the sequel to Batman Begins. Fighting crime in grim Gotham City keeps Batman, Lt. Gordon, and Harvey Dent reasonably busy until Heath Ledger’s the Joker unleashes a whole new level of chaos. The grinning psychopath may wonder “Why so serious?” but when a movie that cost $185 million makes a cool $1,001.9 billion at the box office, Warner Bros. laughs all the way to the bank.
5. $841.2 million: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
Captain Jack Sparrow’s second foray on the silver screen was far more lucrative than either the first or third movies in the series. Then again, Dead Man’s Chest involves nothing less than cracking open Davy Jones’s locker to retrieve his heart. Stunts like Sparrow outrunning a horde of angry natives who had made the cock-eyed pirate their king, not to mention creating a CGI sea beast called the Kraken, temporarily subtracted a reported $225 million from the studio’s treasure chest. But the eventual box office booty was $1,066.2 billion.
4. $849.7 million: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
J.K. Rowling’s boy sorcerer books made her publisher, Scholastic, a pile of money, so adapting them for the big screen was a Hollywood no-brainer. The Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series, caught lightning in a bottle and magically made $974.7 million disappear of the pockets of kids and their tag-along parents. Which is not to say it wasn’t a risky enterprise. The $125 million movie had to bring to life characters millions had already pictured in their imaginations. Then it had to make Harry — and his broomstick — fly.
3. $893.9 million: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Precious indeed! The Two Towers may have been the middle child in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy, but it stood out thanks to the extraordinary CGI creation known as Gollum. Rendering that two-faced little creature surely added to the trilogy’s reported $94 million budget, and the Battle of Helms Deep couldn’t have been cheap, but the investment was well worth it once you divide it across three installments. The second part of Sam and Frodo’s trek to Mordor made $925.3 million at the box office.
2. $1,087.1 billion: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
It’s good to be the king. How good? Try $1,119.1 billion good. For the fans of Frodo and elvish speakers everywhere who wanted to know how the three-part Tolkien epic turned out, 201 minutes was barely enough time to determine the fate of every resident of Middle Earth. But with director Peter Jackson’s savvy decision to shoot all three adaptations back to back in New Zealand, King‘s budget ran a cool $94 million — total.
1. $1,642.9 billion: Titanic (1997)
How much money does it cost to set a star-crossed romance on a big sinking ship? Apparently Rose’s diamond necklace wasn’t cheap. IMDB estimates the movie’s price tag at approximately $200,000, which was pretty steep back in 1997, when Titanic was released. Making the movie nearly bankrupted Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, but their investment in James Cameron’s soggy vision paid off. It ultimately grossed $1,842.9 billion, floating it to the top of this list.
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