A Look Back: The 6 Films That Topped $1 Billion

Today, the world will bear witness to the 6th film ever to reach the coveted $1 billion mark. Alice in Wonderland 3D currently has around $996 million, and by all accounts, not accounting for any unforeseen disaster, it will cross that threshold sometime today. Or it probably already has.

It joins an elite group of larger-than-life action/adventure/romances, and I think it’s the perfect occasion to examine the achievement and look back on those films.

To give the feat some perspective, the world’s most expensive painting is Jackson Pollack’s “No. 5, 1948,” which sold for an inflation-adjusted $140 million. The highest grossing film has already made 19 times that, and Alice is about to make at least 7 times that.

Also for some perspective, considering the cost of a 8′ x 4′ sheet of fiberboard and oil paints, “No. 5” probably cost a few hundred bucks in materials compared to an estimated $200 million budget for Alice.

Still, those who don’t believe the Billion Dollar Club should be lauded anymore should reconsider. Despite inflated prices and inflated movie-going thanks to a recession, hitting the billion dollar mark is still an incredible feat especially considering that Hollywood is making more movies every year, and that the task still requires getting approximately 67 million people to pay to see your piece of art. Or, if you’re really ambitious, getting 1 person to pay to see it 67 million times.

Yes, film is still the most expensive art form in the world, and it still yields far more in returns.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane and see which films Alice will be joining in the winner’s circle:


Year: 1997

Studio: Paramount

Gross: $1,843,201,268

Place on the List: 2

Near, Far, Wherever You Are: You went to see this movie. Everyone went to see this movie. It was, for all intents and purposes, a real game-changer that showed everyone how large an event-movie could really be. Women flocked to it for the romance (and secretly for the sinking ship), and men flocked to it because of the promise of a sinking ship (and secretly the romance).

It also won 11 Oscars including the Oscar for Best Picture that year, cementing its dominance of 1997, but personally, I don’t think it has stood the test of time. Or, at least, L.A. Confidential has proven to be more re-watchable for what it’s worth. Still, it’s hard to deny the universal appeal of Titanic because it was the first to join the Billion Dollar Club. And it was all alone until 2003.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Year: 2003

Studio: New Line

Gross: $1,119,110,941

Place on the List: 3

You Bow To No One: This entry in the club has secured its place in history if only because it has a fanboy following. I was fortunate enough to see the film at Butt-Numb-a-Thon 5, and within a few month’s time, everyone else on the planet had seen it, too. It followed the Titanic model of being a huge film (arguably huger) that won 11 Oscars and took Best Picture. But in addition to that, it managed to find an action-figure-buying base – most likely because it’s a fantasy film based on already-beloved books whereas Titanic wasn’t an adaptation or the kind of thing that has fanboy appeal.

The film most certainly deserved it, and for now it stands the test of (a very short) time, although it’s difficult to carve out 4 hours to watch the extended, director’s, bonus, giganti-cut. Still, even though there’s a lot of eye candy, the film holds up like Titanic on an emotional level. A pattern seemed to be emerging. A pattern that would be squashed quickly.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Year: 2006

Studio: Walt Disney

Gross: $1,066,179,725

Place on the List: 4

Is the Jar of Dirt Going To Help?: With this entry, we’ve now cut the time in half between Billion Dollar Club entries, and we’ve also lost a bit of the dramatic punch. Not that there’s anything tragically wrong with Dead Man’s Chest, but it’s more of a popcorn flick than the tear-jerker Titanic turned out to be or the tear-jerker no one admits that Return of the King is. It is ostensibly the Patient Zero of the larger-than-life money-maker that’s pure fun without the dramatic aftertaste. Or, for some, a piece of crap that made a sick amount of box office cash.

It also bucked the trend in the Oscar pool. Although nominated for design and sound, and winning for Visual Effects, it was never even near the running for Best Picture, therefore proving that you could make an astronomical amount of money without having to appeal to the deeper artistic side of the audience spectrum. As proof of the divide, it’s got a 53% critical rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but audiences seem to love it. Of course, two isn’t a trend and neither is three, but if there was a trend, the next entry would have hung it upside down from a tall building and broken its legs with the fall.

The Dark Knight

Year: 2008

Studio: Warners

Gross: $1,001,921,825

Place on the List: 5

And Here…We…Go: There’s not much that needs to be said about this film that hasn’t already been said. It’s the current litmus test, for some reason, for modern success in filmmaking. I mean that not in any financial sense of the word, but as a result of hearing a ton of 13-29 year olds compare everything on the planet to this movie and some mistakenly considering it a revolution in film.

The film certainly did shake up the world a bit, and while it wasn’t a revolution, it is definitely the red-headed stepchild on this list. A superhero film that’s darker than most, longer than most, morally ambiguous-ier than most, and one that wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but people think it should have. It’s an alien in many ways, but on the surface, it’s another summer event film that made the studio a ridiculous amount of money. Also, you’ll note that the time between club members was shaved down by a year this go ’round. It’s a trend that continues.


Year: 2009

Studio: Fox

Gross: $2,726,882,285

Place on the List: 1 with a bullet

This Gray Rock Sells For $20 Million a Kilo: If there is a true outlier in the field, it’s Avatar. Yet, that’s really only in the sheer amount it made: almost $3 billion and still counting. It’s also because it only took 1.5 years for another club member to join – or 1/4th the time between the first two. In other ways, it’s strikingly similar to the other entries. James Cameron managed to get lightning back in the bottle with another epic/romance which upped the CGI ante again and got a bushel of Oscar nominations. He didn’t win this time, but the formula is basically in tact.

This time, it just managed to make almost three times what Titanic did. Perhaps that’s a signifier of the times or the changing movie culture, but mostly it’s due to the promise and execution of something we’d never seen before. If filmmakers can deliver that, there’s no telling how high the box office can go.

Alice in Wonderland

Year: 2010

Studio: Walt Disney

Gross: $1,000,000,000+ as of today

Position on the List: Currently 6

A Land Full of Wonder: It seems that Alice in Wonderland is already coming with an asterisk attached to its achievement. It’s the Barry Bonds of movies. For this entry, people are citing inflated movie prices and even higher 3D prices which came as a direct result of Avatar‘s achievement. I say, if it got people into the theater, it got people into the theater.

However, the bigger asterisk that looms over the title is that it’s the lowest scoring on Rotten Tomatoes (with 51%), dooming Johnny Depp to being the main draw for two Billion Dollar Club members that many think aren’t good movies. I imagine the cash is some comfort, but that’s a hell of a legacy to leave behind.

What’s most fascinating is that there’s now only three months between Club Members joining. Time between Titanic and Return of the King: 6 years. Time between Avatar and Alice: 3 months. That’s 1/24th the time. Now, that doesn’t mean that Shrek 4 is destined to join the club as well, or that it won’t be some time before we see the next club member, but it is striking.

Plus, there is a new Harry Potter film coming out this year, and the series has been knocking at the door for years. Maybe 2010 will be the first year to see two movies join the Billion Dollar Club. Hell, with Inception, there might even be three.

For now, we have these six to treasure or trash, and film executives and directors have them to aspire to.

Which is your favorite?

Source: Numbers provided by the incomparable Box Office Mojo.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

Read More from Scott Beggs
Get Film School Rejects in your email. All the cool kids are doing it:
Previous Article
Next Article
Reject Nation
Leave a comment
Comment Policy: No hate speech allowed. If you must argue, please debate intelligently. Comments containing selected keywords or outbound links will be put into moderation to help prevent spam. Film School Rejects reserves the right to delete comments and ban anyone who doesn't follow the rules. We also reserve the right to modify any curse words in your comments and make you look like an idiot. Thank You!