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Billion Dollar Babies: Get to Know the 50 Movies That Have Broken the Billion-Dollar Barrier

Now that ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ has joined this exclusive list of mega-moneymakers, we crunch the numbers to figure out what it takes for your movie to be a true blockbuster. (Hint: It helps to have Iron Man in it.)

Tom Cruise has earned plenty of accolades, but there’s still room for firsts in his storied career. On Sunday, his latest smash, Top Gun: Maverick, achieved something none of his previous films had accomplished: It reached a billion dollars in global box office. That’s an impressive feat, and further proof that Cruise remains one of the few true superstars left in an industry now dominated by intellectual property. But what might have really shocked people was learning that, by breaking the billion-dollar barrier, the sequel became the 50th film to reach such commercial heights. That’s a lot of movies that have made a lot of money.

If you skim the list of billion-dollar movies, you’ll notice many familiar titles — and perhaps be wowed by the fact that five of these films have actually earned over $2 billion each. (Also, the vast majority of the Top 50 are from the last couple decades, as the international market has grown and ticket prices have shot up.) Are there patterns or trends we can spot by looking over this list? Are there certain types of movies more likely to bring in that kind of dough? 

I decided to spend an afternoon putting together some stats to come up with answers. One thing’s for sure: Now that the industry is starting to recover after two pandemic years, it seems likely this exclusive club will have some new members soon — starting, perhaps, with this weekend’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, a franchise that’s already had two installments make at least that much. 

What’s the Highest-Grossing Film?

If you knew the answer to this before the pandemic, you would be wrong now. When Avengers: Endgame came out in 2019, it broke box-office records, going on to become the highest-grossing movie in the world. The film it beat? Avatar, which had held the title since its release 10 years earlier. James Cameron sent out a congratulatory note to Marvel, but the beloved superheroes didn’t hold onto the crown for long: In 2021, Avatar was rereleased in China, retaking the top spot on the global box-office list. (Consequently, Marvel then sent Cameron a congratulatory note.) As it stands now, Avatar has collected $2.847 billion globally, with Avengers: Endgame right behind at $2.798 billion. (At No. 3 is Titanic, with its measly $2.201 billion.) 

What’s the Oldest Film on the List?

Jurassic Park, which came out in 1993. However, there’s a caveat here: On its initial release, the Steven Spielberg dinosaur movie only grossed approximately $914 million. But thanks to re-releases in subsequent years, the film is now over a billion dollars. The same is true of 1994’s The Lion King, which didn’t crack that barrier in its first release. If we’re going by initial release, then the honor belongs to Titanic, which hit theaters 25 years ago. 

Who Has Directed the Most Movies on the List?

James Cameron has two. So does Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Peter Jackson, Joss Whedon, James Wan, Michael Bay and the directing duo of Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, the guys behind Despicable Me 3 and Minions. But the winners are the Russo brothers, who have three billion-dollar films: Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. I am guessing you didn’t get that one right. (I know I didn’t.)

How Many Movies Aren’t Based on Anything?

Titanic is an original screenplay, although of course it’s inspired by the actual incident. Frozen was based on the Hans Christian Andersen story. So that only leaves three movies that aren’t based on anything: Avatar, Zootopia and the animated 1994 Lion King. (In case you’re wondering, you have to go all the way down to No. 61 on the list for the next all-original film, which is also animated: Finding Nemo.)

Which Movie Features the Oldest Star?

This is a tricky one because, technically, Harrison Ford is listed first on the poster for The Force Awakens, and he was 63 when that movie came out. (Mark Hamill was top-billed on The Last Jedi, and he was 66. Carrie Fisher was listed first on The Rise of Skywalker, dying three years before its release at age 60.) But I think you can make the argument that those veteran Star Wars actors weren’t the central stars of those respective films. (If you disagree, that’s fine: Lord knows I don’t want to make that fan base angry.) But if we’re talking about an actor who’s the undisputed lead of the movie he’s in, that has to be Tom Cruise, who was 59 when Top Gun: Maverick was finally released after years of COVID delays. The man turns 60 on Sunday. He will outlive us all.

How Many Have Iron Man in Them?

The most popular of the Marvel superheroes, Tony Stark has been part of six billion-dollar films. The MCU on the whole has 10 films on the list, with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness currently just over $950 million.

What Actor Has Been in the Most Movies?

From the last question, you might think Robert Downey Jr. would be the answer, but Samuel L. Jackson beats him, appearing in 10 billion-dollar movies. If you’re curious, he’s been part of six MCU installments, Incredibles 2, Jurassic Park and two Star Wars films. (Apparently, he has a “voice cameo” in The Rise of Skywalker, which I don’t remember, much like a lot of that movie.)

What Actress Has Been in the Most Movies?

It’s easy to forget now, but early in her career Scarlett Johansson seemed poised to be the queen of indie cinema thanks to arthouse hits like Ghost World and Lost in Translation. But then Marvel came knocking. She’s been in five billion-dollar MCU films, with the Disney live-action remake of The Jungle Book close behind at $961 million. 

How Many Are Superhero/Comic-Book Movies?

Because we’ve lived in a blockbuster landscape ruled by superhero movies for so long, I sorta assumed that a good portion of the Top 50 would fit within that genre. But that turns out not to be the case: Only 14 films qualify. If you’re wondering, yes, I am including Joker in there, but not Incredibles 2.

You know, I probably should add that one, huh? Okay, that puts the total at 15. Still, that’s not a majority, although it’s worth pointing out that when you get to the top of the highest-grossers, superhero films really start to dominate: Four of the Top 9, and six of the Top 13 feature comic-book characters. 

How Many Are Animated?

In film circles, there’s some debate regarding what should count as an “animated movie.” After all, so much of Avatar involves motion-capture — to say nothing of the extensive CGI used to bring characters to life in the recent remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King — that it’s hard to think of them as traditional live-action movies. Regardless, I’m not counting any of those in my tally. As a result, nine of the 50 are animated, with the highest-grossing being Frozen II. (The second-highest-grossing? Frozen.) Breaking down the numbers, three come from Disney, four from Pixar and two from Illumination. Maybe like you, I was surprised there weren’t any Dreamworks movies on this list — didn’t everybody love Shrek? Apparently not enough: Shrek 2 is the highest at $929 million.

Which One Has the Best Cinemascore Rating?

Cinemascore polls audiences to get their letter-grade response to a movie they’ve just seen, a decent indicator of what a film’s word-of-mouth potential could be. Top Gun: Maverick received an A+, but it’s not the only billion-dollar film to earn such a high mark. In fact, it’s actually the 10th, following Avengers: Endgame, Titanic, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the 1994 Lion King, The Avengers, Frozen, Black Panther, Incredibles 2 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Which One Has the Worst Cinemascore Rating?

Not surprisingly, none of these films got an especially “bad” score. But a B+ tends to be a pretty tepid response to a blockbuster, and three movies ended up with that grade: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Rise of Skywalker and Joker. With Stranger Tides and The Rise of Skywalker, I can understand that slightly lower grade, which normally indicates audience fatigue with a franchise that’s run out of gas. But Joker threw me: Was the film darker than those polled were expecting? Were they bummed Batman didn’t show up? Regardless, the lowered score didn’t keep any of these three from bringing in an obscene amount of money. 

Which Film Is the Shortest?

Minions is 91 minutes, which is amazing because it feels so much longer than that. Despicable 3 is one minute shorter. But our winner is the 1994 Lion King, clocking in at a fleet 88 minutes. 

Which Film Is the Longest?

When Avengers: Endgame was coming out, fans were excited — but also a little shocked to learn it was 181 minutes. However, that’s not the longest movie on this list. Among all the other reasons why industry observers figured Titanic would be a bust was that it was so long. Seriously, how could they make back their money when there were so few screenings per day? Clearly, James Cameron knew better than his doubters: Audiences went again and again to soak in all 195 minutes. And yet, that’s still not the longest movie to gross a billion dollars — or the only one to win Best Picture. Let us salute The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which is six minutes longer than Titanic

What’s the Worst Movie on the List?

God, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction are terrible. On Stranger Tides was a slog. But I still think The Rise of Skywalker is the worst of the bunch, a cautionary tale about what happens when producers panic and try to give a franchise’s fan base exactly what they think it wants. There may be a bit of a recency bias informing my pick — the stink of Skywalker is still fresh in my memory — but by squandering so many good actors and delivering such a stunningly underwhelming finale to a film series that’s been part of the culture since the late 1970s, Rise sinks further than the rest.

What’s the Best?

Others might make the case for Black Panther, Toy Story 3 or The Last Jedi. I do like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King quite a lot. But I’m going with the film that’s all the way down at No. 50 on the list. Not just a great comic-book movie but a groundbreaking blockbuster for its tonal sophistication and grand narrative ambitions, The Dark Knight remains a masterpiece. Of course, the fandom that’s grown around this film has often been obnoxious — and too many copycat action films have tried to mimic its approach, often very badly — but that’s not the fault of Christopher Nolan and his excellent cast, especially the late Heath Ledger as a Joker for the ages. The Dark Knight is one of those rare event films that made a lot of money and deserved every penny. 

If anything, I’m mad it’s not higher on this list of all-time grossers.