10 Most Profitable Films Ever Made

While big-time Hollywood studios and investors throw massive piles of cash at CGI-filled slagheaps, many independent and first-time movie-makers are shooting films on shoestring budgets with the hope of hitting the jackpot. So, perhaps now the economy has nose-dived and easy credit is but an embarrassing memory we might have the serendipitous pleasure of seeing some new no-budget classics join this list of the 10 most profitable movies ever made (my money’s on the £45 ($75) zombie flick Colin).

[Note on figures: Budgets are estimated/confirmed production budgets (i.e. not including marketing costs, post-production etc). Box office revenues are estimated/confirmed worldwide gross box office sales (thus not indicative of actual net profits or investor returns). All figures collated from various reputable sources including Box Office Mojo, The Numbers and Variety. Films are listed in order of budget to revenue ratio.]

10. Rocky (1976)

Budget: $1,000,000
Box Office Revenue: $225,000,000
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:225
He may be a champ but the Italian Stallion only just scraped his way on to the list (Halloween’s Michael Myers was slashing at his heels). Written in just 3 days and shot in just 28, cinema’s finest and much-loved underdog sporting movie went on to scoop the Best Picture Oscar and made a star out if its writer/lead actor. It’s a shame that Apollo Creed knocked the talent out of him.

9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Budget: $114,000
Box Office Revenue: $30,000,000
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:263
George A. Romero’s debut established him as one of the kings of low-budget movie-making and injected new life into a genre that had grown as stale as one of his shambling zombies. A politically sly, magnificently bleak, taboo-breaking and highly influential B-movie masterpiece.

8. El mariachi (1992)

Budget: $7,000
Box Office Revenue: £2,040,920
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:292
The inventive cost-cutting tactics that Robert Rodriquez employed to make his debut feature are legendary. Having raised much of the production budget by taking part in medical experiments he rewrote the guerrilla filmmaking rulebook, shooting El Mariachi with just one camera, a head full of inventive movie-making shortcuts and a new set of tits growing on his back. Probably.

Originally intended only for release on the Hispanic home video market, El Mariachi went on to form the first (and best) part of Rodriguez’s increasingly expensive and ludicrous Mexico Trilogy.

7. The Brothers MacMullen (1995)

Budget: $25,000
Box Office Revenue: $10,426,506 (US domestic gross only)
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:417
Edward Burns wrote, directed, produced and starred in this critically acclaimed comedy drama about the lives of three Irish Catholic brothers. It seems that Burns kept the budget low by shooting mostly in his family home. And having his characters do nothing more than sit around talking. (This is mere speculation as I haven’t seen it; please let me know if it features any mind-blowing action scenes).

6. Super Size Me (2004)

Budget: $65,000
Box Office Revenue: $29,529,368
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:454
About five years ago this image of a gobful of fries framed by a ginger horseshoe ‘tache was almost as ubiquitous as the Golden Arches themselves. A revelatory exploration of the hitherto unknown detrimental health effects of fast food (who’d have thought it?), the rapid word-of-mouth and extensive media coverage led to a super size profit margin for Morgan Spurlock et al, and another PR nightmare for Ronald McDonald.

5. Mad Max (1980)

Budget: $200,000
Box Office Revenue: $99,750,000
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:499
With box office takings of nearly 500 times the production budget, as both movie and investment prospect, Mad Max kicks arse. The groundbreaking success of George Miller’s apocalyptic directorial debut helped put Australia on the cinematic map and launched the career of one of Hollywood’s biggest egos. Not bad for a film that was funded largely by the director himself and investments from Australian car mechanics.

4. The Road to Ruin (1928)

Budget: $2,500
Box Office Revenue: $2,500,000
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:1000
According to Kevin Brownlow’s exhaustive chronicle of social commentary cinema of the silent era, Behind the Mask of Innocence, this movie, shot on the cheap in ten days, “held some kind of record for its box office success”. Given the figures above (which are backed up by Brownlow’s research), it hasn’t dropped too far down the list - even after 80 years.

In keeping with the exploitation genre’s trashy self-righteousness, the movie itself was a titillating voyeuristic vision of a young girl’s descent from decency into alcoholism, prostitution, abortion and – in the obligatory tacked-on moralistic ending – death. Brilliantly, though banned in some US cities for its lewd content, in others it was shown to children for educational purposes.

3. Deep Throat (1972)

Budget: $22,500
Box Office Revenue: $45,000,000 (US domestic gross only)
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:2000
Which brings us nicely to Deep Throat – one of cinema’s most controversial successes. Indeed, its inclusion here is no exception to since the surreptitious nature of the movie’s production, distribution and financing has stirred much debate over definitive figures for its budget and revenue.

Often described, unofficially, as the most profitable movie ever made, some sources, such as the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, put its worldwide revenues at $600m – which would put it way out in the lead in this chart – though such immense figures have been refuted as publicity-baiting exaggeration on behalf of the documentary-makers. Therefore, since I could find no backed-up estimates of its worldwide gross, I’ve erred on the side of caution and used a reasonable estimate of the movie’s US domestic earnings to calculate the budget/revenue ratio - and it still made the top three.

2. Tarnation (2004)

Budget: $218.32
Box Office Revenue: $1,162,014
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:5323
Tarnation is a cathartic autobiographical documentary charting the life of Jonathan Caouette and his difficult relationship with his mentally-ill mother. The Cannes Film Festival hit was created from the home videos, photos, answer machine messages and pop culture paraphernalia that Caouette had collected over the years and edited himself using his Apple Mac’s iMovie software. (Though the production budget was credit card-friendly, it should be noted that many sources reported that an additional, and not insubstantial, $400,000 was spent on post-production for the theatrical release).

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Budget: $35,000
Box Office Revenue: $248,300,000
Budget/Revenue Ratio: 1:7094
The only things that stick in my mind about the actual movie are tedious forest rambles and the leading lady’s snot. What I do remember very clearly, however, is the unremitting barrage of hype that turned a resourcefully-produced, no-budget horror into a ground-breaking global hit that went on to make 7,000 times what it cost to produce.

Like many of the movies on this list the marketing costs far outweighed the production budget, but in a shrewd and pioneering move the creators made the internet its publicity bitch, creating its own mythology and stoking online rumour mills. A practice that Hollywood has been milking ever since.

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