They call these days “The Golden Age of Television.” With the red-hot popularity of shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, and many others, cinematic TV programs are what’s selling. The phenomenon is a take on the “Golden Age” of cinema, which refers to the movies that came out roughly between 1927 and 1963 (the exact limits are fluid), when some of the most formative pictures came out.
But if you take the term “Golden” to mean lucrative, it seems like we’re still living in the Golden Age of Cinema. Of the twenty-three billionaire movies, 15 have come out in the past 5 years. Movie tickets and concessions are almost prohibitively expensive and online piracy is cresting, somehow blockbusters are still attracting people to the movie theatre. Certainly, seeing Avatar on the big screen is much sexier than watching it on your MacBook, James Horner’s majestic soundtrack rendered tinny by rinky-dink speakers. And many movies like Avatar have come out in the past few years.
However let’s not kid ourselves that this has everything to do with the quality of movies. Inflation has also played a role, having been more or less steadily increasing for the past decade. In other words, a dollar is still a dollar, but a dollar now is much less valuable than a dollar in the mysterious then.
23 The Dark Knight (2008) – Total Gross $1,004,558,444
Christian Bale, the American Psycho himself, made a badass Batman. Gruff, gravelly, and panting incessantly, he brought the tormented superhero into vogue, although Tobey Maguire gave it a good try in Spider-Man 3. Until then, superheroes cracked wise and wore their underwear outside their clothes (remember Captain Underpants?) It’s no surprise that his second attempt at portraying Batman would have been one of the most lucrative movies ever. Furthermore, this is the movie that Heath Ledger died playing the villain of, furthering peoples’ curiosity.
22 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Total Gross $1,021,103,568
Who would have thought that this 2012 ditty of a movie would rake in over 1 billion dollars? Who would’ve thought that Martin Freeman in a leading role could sucker people into paying a billion dollars to see him? (Elijah Wood MAYBE, but Martin Freeman? Really? He’s cute, but come on…) But he totally did. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a rating of 8/10 on IMDb and an international total gross of a billion, plus an added 21 million, or what the French would call “dust” (“des poussières”) in comparison.
21 Alice in Wonderland (2010) – Total Gross $1,025, 467,110
Interestingly, this film peaked at the #5 highest-grossing movie of all time. Of course, once we get to the top five, you’ll see who blocked it out: the top two are such gas-giants that no one could possibly eclipse them. It also came out in 2010, which, as we’ve already covered, was the first of five amazingly expensive years for movies. This film, directed by Tim Burton and starring his man-muse Johnny Depp also marks the first of a bunch of $1B dollar movies starring the handsome Kentuckian, one of the highest-grossing actors ever.
20 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – Total Gross $1,027,044,677
When people think Star Wars, they generally think “Big Money.” This series of movies practically invented the ridiculously drawn-out franchise, whose model has since been poached by Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and arguably Fifty Shades of Grey. No but seriously: the first Star Wars movie came out 1977 and the ‘last one’ came out in 2005. A thirty-year gap between the first and last installment of a series is almost laughable. But besides being a good director, George Lucas has a good sense of business, and by letting time pass between his movies, he acquired fans and thereby consumers.
19 Jurassic Park (1993) – Total Gross $1,029,939,903
It’s no surprise that based off of the original gross of Jurassic Park, the creators would want to reboot it. And plus in the early 1990s, a billion dollars was a lot of money. To give you an idea, what is now the 19th highest-grossing movie of all time was once the top-grossing movie of all time, a spot it would hang on to for at least four years (we will come back to this much later in the list.) Hard to imagine that the corn-fed Laura Dern could ever have been the main babe of a blockbuster, but hey, the 90s were a crazy time.
18 Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) – Total Gross $1,045,713,802
Here lies Johnny Depp’s second contribution to the list of billion dollar movies: the latest iteration of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Even though there have been rumblings about the franchise being uninspired since Dead Man’s Chest, people still went to see Stranger Tides in droves (in tidal waves?) and brought in over a billion dollars for Disney. Then again, Disney has one of the most effective advertisement models ever created, with its abundant tourist and travel services serving as marketing for its movies and vice-versa. (In short: there’s a a PoTC ride at Disneyland.)
17 Toy Story 3 (2010) – Total Gross $ 1,063,171,911
Speaking of Disney, the #17 entry on this list is a Disney Pixar production: Toy Story 3, the movie that made the entire world cry. Oftentimes, threequels aren’t that good. The franchise loses its original charm, or worse tries to recreate the really cutting-edge scenes from the first movie (like in Pitch Perfect 2 when they have another riff-off.) But Toy Story 3 didn’t fall into that: it has a 99% rating on RottenTomatoes. Sure some movies have, but the vast majority of movies don’t perform that well on the rating website. Based on reviews, it seems it was worth the money.
16 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) – Total Gross $ 1,066,179,725
All right, welcome back Johnny Depp for a third time! Depp is starting to seem like one of those people at award shows whose picture keeps winning stuff and so by like the fourth speech they’re like: “Hahaha… thanks again mom! I haven’t stopped appreciating your contributions since that last shout-out!” As we said earlier, people had already tired a little of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which might explain why the earlier movie managed to surpass the later one in terms of how much money it made (2006 versus 2011.)
15 The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Total Gross $1,084,439,099
Another incumbent, welcome Christian Bale back to this list, reprising his role as the growling Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. This is the movie that introduced Tom Hardy in possibly his most iconic role as Bane. Huffing and puffing like Darth Vader in a face mask, Bane spawned a year’s worth of memes and Halloween costumes. No one (or so it seemed) went as the risen Dark Knight, but that’s because Bane was a more titillating costume to go trick or treating in. Either way, this movie made a lot of moolah.
14 Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Total Gross $1,104,039,076
The fourth installment of the Transformers live-action franchise has a 5.8/10 rating on IMDb. This is pretty weak considering the smashing success of the movies. It’s also pretty weak considering that two out of four of the movies have hurdled the $1,000,000,000 mark. Mark Wahlberg, who supplanted Shia LaBeouf in the leading role, has proven himself marketable as a leading man in an action movie in, amongst others, Scorsese’s The Departed. Even if the movie isn’t good, maybe people just wanted to see Wahlberg.
13 Skyfall (2012) – Total Gross $1,108,561,013
Skyfall was the third James Bond movie made with Daniel Craig in the leading role, and the only movie of the whole multi-decade franchise that made over a billion dollars. This is odd, considering the memorable Bonds who preceded him: Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. But apparently Daniel Craig doesn’t like being in billion dollar movies, because just recently he claimed that he would rather use glass to cut open his wrists than reprise the suave character. Granted, it must be a lot of work to portray him, but the glory would make it all worth it.
12 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Total Gross $1,119,929,521
The second Peter Jackson movie on this list, this 2003 third chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga was the first to bring in $1B dollars. Although we’ve seen some ‘bad’ movies on this list (Mark Wahlberg’s attempt at Transformers), this movie was widely considered excellent, bringing in 11 Academy Awards in 2004, including best picture and best director. Although often franchises get tired as they go along, this one only seemed to improve; the previous two films were merely nominated for best picture. What’s more is they each came out only a year apart, a gap sometimes short enough to produce a slipshod product regardless how hard the work.
11 Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) – Total Gross $ 1,123,794,079
Way back in the day when he was on Even Stevens, no one thought Shia LaBeouf would carry a one billion dollar movie. Then, he was the punk-ass middle school geek Louis Stevens. But he grew up into a good-looking man and snagged the leading role in the Transformers live-action franchise. Mark Wahlberg may have gotten to a billion on his first try in a Transformers movie, but LaBeouf did it first, and got more money at the end of the experiment. Furthermore, LaBeouf is younger and couldn’t rely on as much of a preexisting fan-base and one can’t discount LaBeouf’s work in getting people to the theatre, even to see Marky Mark Academy Award winner Mark Wahlberg.
10 Minions (2015) – Total Gross $ 1,145,310,540
The breakout character of Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 was not lovable anti-hero Gru, voiced by Steve Carell. It was his little yellow helpers, the Minions. Although typically Pixar is responsible for the animated characters that people of all ages become annoyingly obsessed with, this time it was Universal (and universal!) It’s no surprise that a movie featuring them and only them, and starring mega-celebs Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm, would pull in over a billion dollars. It having come out recently, expect to see many people this Halloween wearing yellow and babbling gibberish.
9 Iron Man 3 (2013) – Total Gross $ 1,215,439,994
Robert Downey Jr. has been the highest-paid actor in 2015, making $80M. Think of the movies he’s been in: Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers 1 and 2, and Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2 (not all in 2015, but it makes sense that his fame and wealth would culminate.) We don’t want to say he’s saturated the market, but we’re getting a little damp with Bob Downey the Second. Naturally there would be a correlation between being the highest-paid actor and being in the highest-grossing movies. This would explain why Iron Man 3, an effective vehicle for RDJ’s star-power, made $1.2 billion.
8 Frozen (2013) – Total Gross $ 1,279,852,693
On YouTube, the “Let it Go” sing-along video has 562,000,000 views, the “Let it Go” clip from the movie has 488,000,000, the Demi Lovato version has 408,000,000. The song alone has proven that kids can be a giant market (in some ways, Minions was more of an adult movie that a kids movie; it had celebrities that kids don’t care about) Frozen was undeniably a kids’ movie (song by Demi Lovato) even though plenty of adults enjoyed it. They, with their parents’ money, brought the movie over a billion dollars.
7 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011) – Total Gross $ 1,341,511,219
Harry Potter is another interesting example in the child/ adult dichotomy. When the first movie came out, it was 2001. Assuming millennials are born between 1990 and 1995, then they were mostly kids at this point. This movie, the last in the franchise came out in 2001, ten years later. By that point, even the youngest millennial was an adult, in the sense that they were capable of enjoying adult-oriented things (PORN! Jk.) But they were still into Harry Potter, and so were new kids. It became intergenerational due to its length, begetting millions of fans the world over.
6 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Total Gross $1,402,724,272
The second Avengers movie made almost a billion and a half dollars. It brought together some of today’s biggest movie stars (Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Chris Evans) for the second time, after having established some of their fame in the first movie (Jeremy Renner, who people had low-key (Loki…) never heard of until he was cast as Hawkeye.) People adored the fist movie, it having a 92% of RottenTomatoes, so the second movie having gross a billion dollars isn’t a surprise.
5 Furious 7 (2015) – Total Gross $1,511,726,205
Although people were seemingly really sad about Paul Walker dying (especially Vin Diesel who like would not stop crying about it), they were probably secretly also a little greedily happy because the movie that he died while filming ended up making a billion and a half dollars. The franchise’s whole worth is $4b, meaning that over a third of the money from seven movies came from the last installment. The other movies, if you do the math, made $410,000,000 each (which Furious 7 made about 3.7 times.) If sad, at least Paul Walker’s death was lucrative.
4 The Avengers (2012) – Total Gross $ 1,519,557,910
There is an interesting phenomenon at play on this list: it seems as though there is no correlation between the order movies came out in and the money they made. Avengers 2 made less than Avengers 1, but Iron Man 1 and 2 didn’t even make it on this list while Iron Man 3 did. Often times, people say that Hollywood makes so many prequels/ sequels/ franchises because people don’t like change. Indeed, aside from a couple of outliers, most movies on this list form part of a corpus (here: Iron Man and Thor.) Obviously it requires time and effort to familiarize everyone with your product before it reaches warp speed and passes $1b dollars by the second or third movie.
3 Jurassic World (2015) – Total Gross $ 1,663,820,751
As a perfect example for what we’ve just discussed: Jurassic World at $1.6 billion. The first Jurassic Park movie came out in 1993, 22 years before this movie, to great reviews. The second movie got significantly worse reviews, and the third even worse. Jurassic World, the effective fourth installment? It did much better than the last two in the franchise (monetarily and in the movie section of the newspaper.) Familiarity with a movie’s premise makes viewers much more likely to see it. It’s why television shows go for so long – things we already know and understand are much more easily digested.
2 Titanic (1997) – Total Gross $ 2,186,772,302
Earlier on this list, we mentioned that Jurassic Park occupied the top spot for four years on this list before being dethroned. The movie that did it was Titanic, which would itself occupy the spot for twelve years before being walloped. The reason we know it was four years is because Titanic was the next movie chronologically to beat out Jurassic Park. The reason we know it would stay there for twelve years while other billion dollar movies whizzed past it: it didn’t only beat out the dinosaur movie by a hair, it bested it by twice, being the first of only two movies to double the big $B.
1 Avatar (2009) – Total Gross $ 2,787,965,087
The only other movie to eclipse Titanic was Avatar, which at 2.78 billion dollars almost reaches a triple bil. Since a billion is a thousand million, that means that Avatar has made 780,000,000 dollars ON TOP of 2,000,000,000, a number itself entirely impressive for a big movie (Guardians of the Galaxy, one of 2014’s biggest blockbusters, made a much-celebrated $500,000,000, which seems paltry compared to Avatar’s effective ‘poussières.’) The odd thing? Sam Worthington, who played the film’s handsome protagonist, hasn’t been seen much since, the exception to the rule that if your movie makes big money, you’ll get big roles.