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What Films actually made the most & Why?

Updated on October 28, 2014
One of the Biggest films of the year .
One of the Biggest films of the year . | Source
The Avengers was the biggest grossing film of 2012
The Avengers was the biggest grossing film of 2012 | Source

An Investor Approach

If I were an investor and wanted to make bets on films—is there a smart system to predict the earnings? I would want a good return on my money. Blockbuster films bring in huge grosses, but are they really the most profitable?

I searched the internet for the answer and did find Hollywood accounting and decided that I would not want a percentage contract on one of my novels. Then I found a dozen universities that teach how to become an accountant for filmmakers and that was mostly a job to calculate how much a movie would cost to produce. I suppose the trades may write up the information I was looking for, but I calculated I could figure it all out in a few hours or so without any assistance.

Here is the data from which I did draw some conclusions:

Some Top movies of 2012

....................... Budget ..............Box Office

Twilight Sage…..$385 million……..$3.3 billion (five films series)

Hunger Games ..$76 million ……..…$686 million

Ted…………… $65 million…………$502 million

The Avengers…… $220 million . $1.51 billion**

Skyfall………….$150-$200 million…$1.03 billion

The Dark Knight Rises $230 million .$1.08 Billion

Life of Pi………$120 million………....$307 million

The above are listed in order of profitability. Twilight Saga series brought in around 800% profit as they were modestly budgeted. If the films had run around $120 million each ($600 million total) the profitability would have dropped considerably. Hunger Games is another modest budget production with similar profits. We can calculate that the BEST SELLING NOVELS sold these movies and that there was a built in audience regardless of the production values and star power.

Ted, an R rated comedy was promoted on late night comedy shows and breaks the pattern of an R rated movie most often not having a large audience. The late night audiences showed up at the box office and the low budget turned this into a very profitable endeavor.

The Avengers, a Marvel project was calculated for several years to make big dollars. Smaller films like Captain America and Green Lantern were warm-ups for this and in that the public had accepted the X-Men for a decade, it was time to bring out the next popular team. They may have calculated that they would make more $$$ with a new team properly launched. This was the big hit of the year with the biggest box office receipts

The James Bond film Skyfall had a big budget and audiences showed up in record numbers to view, “The best Bond film of them all.” It is good that they did as it had to do well in order to earn any profit. If they could have brought it in for $150 million or so, it would have moved up the list a few notches.

Spielberg did not get a great return on his investment with Life of Pi. Although it is critically acclaimed, many potential patrons did not show up to see a boy and a tiger on a raft. We can note that Ted beat out Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises for profitability and its success was not the norm. From this we can note that big budgets and small budgets can compete very well and that niche audiences can generate respectable profit.

Modest films make money

Here is a list of popular films released in the last year or so in 3D. Let’s see if we can discover where profitability lies.

………………………Budget………..............Box Office

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter 3D…$69 million … $116 million

Alice in Wonderland … $150-$200 million…………… $Billion**

Amazing Spider-Man … $230 million………………….$752 million

Arthur Christmas … ...... $100 million………………….$147 million
Avatar…………………....$237 million ………………....$2 billion 782 million**

Brave…………………….$185 million ………………..... $554 million*

Clash of the Titans……..$125 million …………………..$493 million*

Drive Angry…..................$50 million ………………….. $29 million

Final Destination 3D …...$40 million ………………….....$157 million*
Gulliver's Travels………. $112 million…………………....$237 million
Hugo……………………....$160 million ………………......$186 million
Immortals ………………....$75 million …………………....$225 million*
John Carter Warlord of Mars $250 million ………………$283 million
Journey 2 The Mysterious Island… $75 million……….…$325 million**
Narnia, The voyage of the Dawn Treader…$147……….$416 million
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $200 million..$1 billion**
Puss in Boots…………….$130 million………………….....$535 million*
Tangled ………………….$260 million…………………......$591 million
The Three Musketeers . .$75 million……………………....$132 million
Tintin…………………… ...$135 million………………….....$535 million*

Pre-promotion helped make this one a winner
Pre-promotion helped make this one a winner | Source
Star power and a Budget make this a finacial winner
Star power and a Budget make this a finacial winner | Source

I placed ** for the films that made the most for their investors and * for the next best returns. All kinds of thoughts crop up here. Avatar was unquestionably the best film and made the best return with over 1,000 percent profit.

Going down the list beginning with the big financial winners:

Alice in Wonderland did well because it had star power with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, a talented director. In that it is based upon a well known and popular classic had to be a part of it.

Journey to the Mysterious Island is a low budget film based on a classic that has worked in the past. Bring out Dwayne Johnson “The Rock” as the star and you have a winner. This was smartly calculated.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was a fair bet and the smart money put their wallets to work. They could base their hopes on the previous franchise being successful and a quality film would do smartly at the box office. Big stars and big production worked well.

Second tier winners:

Brave was launched with lots of pre merchandising. At this point we can calculate that the CEO's at Pixar will make tons of money with just about everything as they are firmly committed to producing high quality films.

Clash of the Titans is becoming a franchise; however it will take talented people to keep this going. The following release was not as good and the revenue’s dropped. There are no big names in any of these and they must figure out who they wish to draw into the theater. They must keep these a little bit lighter in theme in order to keep it going for long. The concept of Greek gods ruling from the heavens and the rest of it can only go so far with modern audiences.

Final Destination 3D may be successful; however audiences may tire of the same story with little variation. These producers realize that a low budget is all this franchise is worth. If they spent any real money on this dumb stuff they would lose money.

Immortals is another modest budget film with no stars and modest production values. They apparently found fairly large niche audience that loves sword and sorcery and pulled this one out of the hat. This could just as easily have lost a ton of money. Where the producers will go from here is a wild card.

Puss and Boots by DreamWorks was a Shrek spinoff and what began as a video release ended up as a big budget theatrical presentation. They must have realized that they had a star character on their hands and brought in big names to give it a boost. This became a first rate and well received production that could very well do well with a follow-up film.

Spielberg did well with Tintin and brought in international talent to pull this off. If he had insisted on a better ending, the film could have probably done even better.

The loser is Drive Angry with Nicholas Cage as the box office star. This was a budget production with a story line much like Ghost Rider. For viewers who can stand the sex, language and violence, this is a great film. Apparently there are not many viewers for this. If they had toned it down to PG it may have done much better. It was a fun R film and more entertaining than both Ghost Rider films that also stared Mr. Cage.

Time to answer the question:

In answer to my own question about how to get a good return on an investment, there is no clear answer. Producing hit films is an art form that balances budget and production values. While John Carter is beautifully crafted, its huge budget was almost a death knell for those involved. By most standards it was a modest hit that many would have cheered if it had been produced for $125 million or so. I could have advised them to bring down the budget as John Carter is an unknown character for the general population. I wonder how it would have done if they had brought in a few big name stars like they do with Batman and James Bond films. To launch a $200 million dollar film without a star seems suicidal to me. They did it in Avatar and that was gutsy!

It appears that quality G and PG films are the best bet and finding a story that has universal appeal to all ages will probably do better than anything else. Even a weak story like Tintin will do well when talented direction is at work.

We can note that following up a film with more of the same and creating a franchise is a safe bet. Animated films, pirates, vampires, and super heroes abound here and we are sure to see much more of it as long as we plunk down our money and order a box of popcorn.

Some thoughts on the modest winners:

The films in the third tier range from great (Hugo, Tangled) to modestly entertaining. In that they did not make huge profits is not to demean them at all. Tangled with its $260 million dollar budget may very well be the biggest budgeted movie of all time! We are all individuals and we all enjoy different stories and each genre will find an audience. Hugo and Tangled, for example, were created by artists who probably cared little about the financial return. In the end they knew they were creating a lasting work of art and were happy to do so regardless of the financial return.

Who are the winners?

Those of us who attend and enjoy movies are always the winners. We care little about profits and losses and are simply happy to be entertained. We should feel fortunate that talented creative artists in America are at work producing films for the world to enjoy.


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    • Reynold Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Reynold Jay 

      4 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Hi vocalcoach... Thank you for taking time to read and comment. You are appreciated here.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      4 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Enjoyed this immensely! I grew up in a 'movie seat' and still absolutely love going to the movies. Thanks for bringing so much good information about films and the money they make. Sharing.

    • Reynold Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Reynold Jay 

      5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Hi DDE--Happy to see you here today. The Life of Pi has a dull plot to it. Many will not find it worth their time although it receives high marks from critics. If you haven't viewed it yet, you might choose to skip it! One viewing was all I needed.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I watched most of the movies mentioned here. Interesting to know why they do that well.

    • Reynold Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Reynold Jay 

      5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Hi FA. Frozen became a colossal success after I wrote this HUB. It took in over a Billion making it the $$$ winner of animated films of all time. I go into department stores and there is often a FROZEN department. I bet they take in more big $$$ with the spinoff merchandise. I love the Irish voices and music in Brave, like you and it is in my top three animated features of all time.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      I loved that Brave movie. It does seem like Frozen is all the rage though recently, especially with the merchandise.

    • Reynold Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Reynold Jay 

      5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Hi Jackie--I don't go at all either! I wait until they appear on the tube or in 3D discs.

      The Shrek series is one of my favorites and I watch them over and over. All were in 3D and I have the entire set. Thank you for taking time today.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      5 years ago from the beautiful south

      I am not much of a movie goer myself, I just wait and see it years later; well except for the ones like Shrek; those really will get me out pretty quick to see.

    • Reynold Jay profile imageAUTHOR

      Reynold Jay 

      7 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      I know this is an unusual approach to it all. I think my business background in tandem with my creative side really wondered about all this. I tried to place myself in the producer's chair and see what challenges they encounter. I'm glad I am not one of them as the stakes are too high for my modest life. Thank you for the reading and the comment.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      7 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for researching and presenting the breakdown on films and profitability. The findings are interesting concerning which films get the big audience. Your conclusion is surprising but agreeable. Voted Up!


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