Movies unlike music, don’t have a Billboard-style chart that ranks the best performers. That leaves box office results — or revenue in capitalist terms — as the easiest way to figure out what makes a hit. Luckily, Wikipedia¹ provides both the budget and box office gross of most Hollywood films. I’ve written some scripts to grab and analyze this information to see what the most successful films have in common.
I’ve focused on two metrics, profit, and rate of return. For the mathematically inclined:
profit = (box office revenue) — (budget)
rate of return = (profit)/(budget)
Using these two metrics, we can find the movies that made the most money, as well as those that provided the greatest return to their investors. Let’s look at the most profitable films first and see what trends emerge.
1 — Trends in the Most Profitable Movies
1- We’re all Nerds/Children Now
If we look at the movies that made the most money, we see that they’re all targeted at nerds and/or children. Moreover, pretty much all of them feature a lot of action. Besides the Fast and the Furious franchise, the most profitable films all come from comic books (eg. Avengers), sci-fi/fantasy stories (eg. Star Wars), or children’s IP (eg. Despicable Me).
With over 60%² of box office revenue coming from foreign markets (particularly China), it makes sense that action and big spectacles are so successful. They translate into any language and culture.
2 — The Most Profitable Movies are Released in Summer (or during the holidays)
If we look at the months when the top 200 most profitable films were released, we see that 4 stands out — April, May, June, and December.
Most those big popcorn flicks come out in the summer when kids are away from school and eager to hit up movie theaters for the A/ C. Alternatively, blockbusters are scheduled for release during the holidays when families have time off and will do anything to avoid talking to each other.
Also, unlike the other months, June’s box office profit is actually growing year-over-year³ (driven largely by the growing international market).
The Best Runtime is 2 Hours
If we plot the runtimes of the 200 most profitable movies since 2000, we see a large variance. Profitable films can run anywhere from 80 min to over 3 hours long (see Lord of the Rings: Return of the King).
Still, most movies cluster where we would expect, around the 2-hour mark. In fact, the median length of these top 200 films is exactly 120 minutes.
2 — Trends in Movies with the Best Rate of Return
Since 2000, one movie has returned much more money than any other. With a reported budget of only $15,000, it managed to gross hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Plotting the movies with the highest rate of return, it blows the others out of the water.
What is the secret to this insane level of success? Three words, Fake Found Footage. Taking a page from the classic Blair Witch Project (which returned over 4000x its budget), The cult film Paranormal Activity tops the list of films with the best returns. It’s a classic example of how a horror movie with a minuscule budget can still make a boatload.
Horror Movies Have the Best Rate of Return
If we remove paranormal activity from the list, we see that the other most-successful movies made a more modest (but still amazing) 30–100X return. Plotting these by genre, horror clearly dominates.
Horror films are the bread and butter of Blumhouse Productions. Besides making the Paranormal films, they were behind ‘Get Out’ (57X return), ‘the Purge’ (30X), ‘Split’ (31X), ‘Insidious’ (65X), and ‘Sinister’ (29X). All of these films had a relatively low budget but made tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Besides horror movies, documentaries and Christian films fill out the rest of the list. These films also have low budgets and occasionally become blockbusters.
The Best Rate of Return is actually in Off-Months
The best time to release high rate-of-return movies is somewhat unexpected. Unlike the most profitable films, low budget, high return movies do best in January and September.
These launch windows represent times when there aren’t any big blockbusters at the box office. They provide an opportunity for smaller films to shine.
September is also a great month to release a horror film since the days are dark and Halloween is right around the corner.
Movies that Provide Good Returns are Short
Unlike the most profitable movies, those with the best rate of return are short. The median length of the top 200 movies with the best rate of return is only 100 minutes.
Bonus — What Doesn’t Make a Hit Film
For fun, I thought it would be interesting to plot the movies with the biggest losses at the box office. These are the films that truly bombed.
Like the most profitable movies, the biggest losers are also action or sci-fi flicks targeted at children. The big problem seems to be that the IP chosen for these films didn’t resonate.
We see ‘Mars Needs Moms’ topping the list. It was a 3D animated film based on a children’s book, with Disney behind it. Still, it didn’t have a princess to sell it to children. Similarly ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash’, ‘Osmosis Jones’, and ‘Balistric: Ecks vs Sever’ were films with lots of animation that tried to excite kids with new characters. They all flopped.
Movies like ‘Final Fantasy’ attempted to target youths with somewhat familiar characters but still failed. Although films based on video games have done much better in recent years, there was a long period where Video Game IP didn’t have a big enough audience to drive ticket sales. In general, a lot of the famous box office bombs were based on intellectual property that audiences just weren’t interested in. For example:
‘Doom’ — lost 4 million
‘Battlefield Earth’ — lost 13 million
‘John Carter’ — lost 22 million
‘Conan the Barbarian (2011)’ — lost 42 million
‘Dungeons and Dragons’ — lost 12 million
‘In the Name of the King’ — lost 47 million.
Besides bad IP, another common theme in movies that lose money is otherwise successful stars. These actors use their goodwill to get bad films made. The biggest offenders are the otherwise successful Ben Affleck (‘Gigli’ and ‘Live by Night’), Sylvester Stallone (‘Get Carter’), Eddie Murphy (‘Pluto Nash’), and John Travolta (‘Battlefield Earth’, ‘the Punisher’, ‘Basic’, ‘Domestic Disturbance’, ‘Gotti’, ‘I am Wrath’, ‘Lucky Numbers’ etc)
Still, let’s not be uncharitable. It’s not so easy to tell what will make a hit movie and what won’t. Why did ‘Gone Girl’, a film starring Ben Affleck based on a bestselling novel succeed wildly, while ‘Gone Baby Gone’, a Ben Affleck directed movie based on a bestselling novel do only OK? Ultimately, studio executives put their careers and investor money on the line when they decide what to greenlight. It’s not clear that you or I could do any better.