It’s common today for movies to gross over $400 million domestically at the box office. It happened with The Avengers in 2012 ($623 million domestic) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire last year. Opening weekends have become huge, too. In the 80's, a major film grossing only $10 million on opening weekend wasn't considered a flop but today it would be. Of course there is the aspect of inflation. Today, average ticket sales are about $8.35 per ticket, compared to $2.69 in 1980.
In the 80's, we saw releases of some of highest grossing films of all time, and endless films that have since become classics. It was the beginning of breaking box office records and of studios manufacturing the bankable movie star we know today. Harrison Ford basically won the 80's, starring in three years of the #1 grossing movies (1980, 1981, 1983). Comedies, sci-fi and action films reigned in the 80's and continued to do well into the 90's. The box office for 1980 exceeded a billion dollars in tickets sales and set off a decade that would end on a high note. The blockbuster as we know it, though, didn't begin in the 80's—it began in 1975 with Jaws when it made $470 million worldwide. But the idea of the blockbuster became more ubiquitous in the 80's. The following films on the list are the highest grossing film per year of the 1980s and are non-inflated, domestic totals.
9 1987: Three Men and a Baby, $167,780,960 million
The late 80’s seemed to be a time when big blockbusters temporarily trailed off, until Batman arrived on the scene in 1989. Opening at the end of year in November, the Leonard Nimoy-directed Three Men starred, then A-list comedic actors Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg and Tom Selleck playing bachelors trying to raise a baby together. It was the first Walt Disney production to gross over $100 million domestically, and with a budget of only $11 million, it was a runaway success for the studio. Three Men beat out the adult-orientated Fatal Attraction, which came in at #2 as the highest grossing film of 1987.
8 1988: Rain Man, $172,825,435
Two years after Top Gun, Tom Cruise starred in an award-winning film. Rain Man won the Oscar for Best Picture—the only film on this decade list that did so. The Oscar win also helped it become the highest grossing film of 1988. If you compare Rain Man’s sales to Three Men and a Baby, the latter made more money in the opening weekend in less theaters than Rain Man, but Rain Man had more legs. Seven of 1988’s top ten films were popular comedies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Crocodile Dundee, Naked Gun, Coming to America and Beetlejuice, with the sole action film on the list, Die Hard, grossing a healthy $83 million for Fox. This will also go down as the year when six movies topped the $100 million mark, unlike in 1987 when only four reached that coveted touchstone.
8. 1986: Top Gun, $176,781,728
In the 80's, Tom Cruise’s affable grin dominated the box office and made him a bona fide movie star. The success of this fighter pilot action film released in the summer of 1986—later in the year the pool shark drama Color of Money also would do well for him—demonstrated he could be a box office draw, which carried over into the 90's. Despite being the #1 film of the year, it barely nudged out second place film, comedy Crocodile Dundee. Cruise's admirable performance in Top Gun couldn't completely save the box office, though: The overall box office gross of $1.107 billion for 1986 ranks as one of the lowest of the decade.
7 1980: The Empire Strikes Back, $209,398,025
The 1980’s started off with a bang when the sequel to the box office juggernaut, Stars Wars came out in theaters. Whereas its predecessor grossed $460 million, Empire only raked in $209 domestically, and eventually became the lowest grossing of the original three trilogies. Even though Empire was at first critically panned, it’s since become the most critically favored of the three films, especially since it is the darkest film where [spoiler alert] it’s revealed Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker’s dad. If you add in inflation and re-releases, Empire Strikes Back ranks #12 on the list of all-time grossing films with a whooping $819 million. Empire’s the only film in the top ten 1980 list that was sci-fi or action—seven are comedies and the rest are dramas.
6 1985: Back to the Future, $210,609,762
When Back to the Future opened in theaters on July 3, 1985, no one knew it would become one of the most beloved films of the 80’s and beyond. The triumph of Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Marty McFly in the sci-fi-comedy transformed the TV actor into a big movie star; his 1987 comedy The Secret of My Success, also finished in the top ten movies of that year. With a budget of only $19 million and a worldwide gross of $382 million, Back to the Future was one of the highest grossers of the decade. Unfortunately, the two sequels Back to the Future spawned did not perform as well as the original. Besides BTTF, only two other films grossed over $100 million in 1985, both being Sylvester Stallone films. Two Oscar nominated films, Out of Africa and The Color Purple, made the top ten list, as did Witness, which garnered Harrison Ford his sole Oscar nomination.
5 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, $212,222,025
Harrison Ford had already established himself as an action hero in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back but the adventuresome, Raiders was the first film he carried on his own (it was even was nominated for Best Picture). Luckily for him, the first installment in the Indiana Jones franchise was a smashing success, as were all three sequels. The team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were unstoppable in the 80's. Spielberg helmed Raiders and E.T. and executive produced Back to the Future, Gremlins, The Goonies and many more hits; George Lucas executive produced and co-wrote Raiders, and produced the Star Wars trilogy. As for the other movies that were the top-ten grossing films of the year, family drama On Golden Pond came in second, followed by Superman II and comedies, Arthur and Stripes.
4 1984: Beverly Hills Cop, $234,760,478
The action-comedy smash generated yet another movie star: Eddie Murphy. Akin to Fox, Ford and Cruise, Murphy was a cash cow for studios in the 1980s. The movie grossed over $316 million worldwide, and with inflation added in, the final tally is around $560 million. The film bowed to $15 million in its December opening weekend but it wasn't until the fourth weekend that it kicked into high gear and grossed $20 million—the film stayed #1 for 13 weeks in a row. Not too shabby for someone who had just left Saturday Night Live. The #2 grossing film of 1984 was Ghostbusters ($229 million), also starring a SNL alumnus, Bill Murray.
3 1989: Batman, $251,188,924
Michael Keaton starring as the first Batman grossed over $40 million in its opening weekend in the summer of 1989, which at the time was an unprecedented opening for any film. Batman would set the standard of large opening weekends, and Hollywood would never be the same. Batman busted box office records when it became the first movie to earn $100 million in its first ten days of release. The high gross would help 1989 to go down in history with $1.262 billion tickets sales, the highest amount of any year in the 80's. The year also saw almost every film on the top ten list grossing over $100 million dollars. The runner up film in 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was actually the highest grossing film worldwide with $474 million in foreign and domestic receipts, but Batman won in North America.
2 1983: Return of the Jedi, $252,583,617
The Ewok-filled third and final installment of the original Star Wars trilogy didn’t break the bank the way Star Wars did in 1977, but it beat out Empire Strikes Back in terms of domestic grosses, not worldwide grosses. If you add in inflation and re-releases, Empire actually grossed more than Jedi. The only other film to make over $100 million in 1983 was Terms of Endearment, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Two future movie stars were at play in 1983: Murphy and Cruise, with Trading Places and Risky Business, respectively, grossing enough to hit the top ten for the year that saw $1.197 billion in ticket sales.
1 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, $359,197,037
Early on in the decade, a film came out that would crush pretty much all competition for ten years. The sci-fi family film, E.T., with a small budget of $11 million, grossed $359 million domestic and $357 million foreign in 1982 (without inflation) and knocked off Star Wars as the highest grossing film of all time. If you add in inflation, E.T’s gross comes out to over a billion dollars, ranking it as the fourth highest grossing film of all time. For a decade, E.T. held the position of highest grossing film of all time until Jurassic Park came along in 1993 and pounced on it. The next highest grossing film of 1982 was Tootsie, grossing $177 million. And like E.T., it was nominated for many Oscars, including Best Picture. E.T. not only was the #1 film of the year, but it also was the highest grossing film of the decade.