So...Paranormal Activity is doing quite well, by all accounts. ‘Accounts’ being the operative word here. Still, the profitability issue is always a thorny one, and perhaps nowhere more so than in movieland.
Can we really adjust effectively for inflation? Are we talking box office gross, or ROI (return of investment)?
What if your backers only put down £20,000 for shooting, but the publishers whiffed an indie hit and spent millions on marketing - does that disqualify you? If not, exactly whose ‘profits’ are we talking about anyway?
In reality then, it doesn’t ever boil down to a straightforward incomings-minus-outgoings equation. But, either way, these are ten films you probably should’ve stumped up for a few shares in...
10. Titanic (1997)
The Sums: Ok, so this one’s controversial right off the bat. It may well be the highest-grossing box office release of all time (a handy argument next time you’re chastised for a minor spoiler?), but it became so on the back of a budget that actually made the universe itself feel smaller.
A $1.8bn - yes, BILLION - dollar return on a $200m budget doesn’t even come within an iceberg’s width of the all-time ROI charts. Still, the fact remains that $1.8bn is quite a lot of money. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Why So Profitable? Good question - as we see above, this one isn’t attributable to some quirk of indie economics. Must be our insatiable appetite for disaster porn combined with a brace of much-loved A-listers, then...
Alternatively, it could be down to some sense of global economic pulling-together over anything costing as much as Titanic did. If it had bombed, large areas of the planet would probably have had to shut down for a couple of months until we clawed our collective way back into the black.
Who Got Rich? James Cameron was crowned King Of The World in a small private ceremony.
Next: Supersize Me[page-break]
9. Supersize Me (2004)
The Sums: Supersize your bank account while you’re at it. A piffling initial outlay of $65,000 left the $20m+ ticket receipts for Morgan Spurlock’s stomach-churning Mac-umentary looking very healthy indeed. Much healthier than him, at any rate.
Why So Profitable? Basically, we’ve all harboured secret ambitions towards eating nothing but fast food for a month. Or ever, come to think of it. The fact that we now had the chance to a) watch someone else try it, and b) see them doubled over shouting soup all over a car park as a result.
Loftier appraisals might suggest that Spurlock’s film hit the eye of a perfect storm: health and environment concerns were at fever pitch, fast food corporations were the bogeymen du jour, and Michel Moore had recently proved that documentaries and box offices will play nicely if supervised. Even better if supersized.
Who Got Rich? Morgan Spurlock can now afford as many Big Macs as he wants.
8. Mad Max (1979)
The Sums: George Miller’s dystopian road flick isn’t one that immediately springs to mind when debating most profitable films, but it actually loitered around the Guinness Book for a good long while.
Bringing in over $100m worldwide is - well, certainly WAS - a hugely impressive feat back in the day. Even more so when making it cost just $400k, Australian. That’s probably about what James Cameron has earmarked for in-trailer slipper allowance on one of his shoots.
Why So Profitable? With its defiantly niche steampunk overtones, Antipodean roots and only a pre-fame Mel Gibson silhouetted on the 3-colour poster, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t simply down to the film being, y’know, awesome. This one’s a relatively rare case of a B-movie going global on merit alone. Hurrah.
Who Got Rich? George Miller raised the money for Mad Max by working as an Emergency Room Doctor. He raised the money for Mad Max 2 by asking Warner Brothers.
Next:Gone With The Wind[page-break]
7. Gone With The Wind (1939)
The Sums: Perhaps the archetypal ‘adjust for inflation’ case, Gone With The Wind’s expense account of $3.9m was significant for its time. Raking in over $400m at the time was simply immense: roughly adjusted, that’s approaching an estimated $1.4bn today, putting it right up there with the one where the bloke can’t steer the boat very well.
Why So Profitable? It wouldn’t have hurt, of course, that the epic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel came out just two years earlier. But, ultimately, you have to chalk this one up to Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh - the former established, the latter essentially putting in an astonishing breakthrough - and their epoch-defining onscreen chemistry.
For the cynics, though, let’s also add that wartime malaise understandably left audiences craving escapist soul food, and that the lengthy production process had been subject to feverish anticipation from the mainstream press for nigh-on 20 months before it actually hit that spreadeagled silver screen.
Who Got Rich? MGM could fund a thousand Who's Your Caddy sequels on the money they made.
Next: Star Wars[page-break]
6. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
The Sums: Despite coming in around $150m shy of The Phantom Menace’s box office overall, A New Hope absolutely SMASHED it in terms of ROI, not falling too far short on a budget more than ten times smaller ($11m, as compared to PM’s $115m).
If any single statistic in the history of cinema has the ability to warm the cockles of your blackened, jaded heart, let that be the one.
Why So Profitable? Frankly, we’re aghast at ourselves for even bothering to type the question.
Who Got Rich? George Lucas, thankfully he didn't waste it on a bunch of stupid prequels. Oh, hang on...
5. Tarnation (2003)
The Sums: Another mildly controversial entry, for precisely the opposite reason to Titanic. Jonathan Caouette’s mash-up of autobiographical VHS and Super-8 footage only coaxed wary punters out of some $600,000 when it hit cinemas, but making it cost him - Mr Cameron, you may want to take a seat for this - an overdraft-friendly $218. Yep. Not a zero in sight.
Why So Profitable? Ok, so clearly we’re only talking ROI here, and the much-publicised final percentage returns don’t actually take into account the nearly half a million bucks distributors had to throw down for printing, audio and all the rest of it.
That shouldn’t take away from the scale of Caouette’s achievement, though. An upsetting and uplifting mini-masterpiece, Tarnation was visceral, disturbing and oddly beautiful in its stark portrayal of a family living with mental illness. Buy your own copy DVD if you haven’t already, and add another 11% or so to the freaky financial stats...
Who Got Rich? Caouette made enough cash to retire. Either that or no-one's noticed that he's made other films.
Next: Deep Throat[page-break]
4. Deep Throat (1972)
The Sums: 50 grand, only half of which was actually spend on the shoot itself - the remainder went on soundtracking it - quickly blew itself (sorry) into a meaty (SORRY) $100m profit, and continued to build on that when the hardcore heavyweight hit the take-home market.
According to research that will hopefully never be done, this makes Deep Throat officially the most expensive collective wank in history.
Why So Profitable? Er...the fact that they had to get an FBI agent in to investigate the allegations of gross obscenity? Nah, we’ll have to assume it was the naked people rhythmically bumping into each other wot done it.
That said, Deep Throat’s financial claims have long been disputed, not least because it was wholly bankrolled by figure-fudging mobsters. We like the idea, urban myth or otherwise, but we must face the possibility that it could all be one huge, um, gag.
Who Got Rich? According to shock doc Inside Deep Throat, the mob did. But we've seen The Sopranos and we've got nothing more to say on that.
Next: Night Of The Living Dead[page-break]
3. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
The Sums: $114k in, $42m out - and that second figure would look more like $700m today. After enjoying such stagger-away success with his lumbering undead chiller of a debut feature, it’s highly unlikely George A. Romero ever had to eat braaaaaaains for dinner again.
Why So Profitable? Yes, the budget was pretty puny, and the screams were pretty substantial for a genre that was often campy as all hell in the black-and-white ‘60s B-movie era, but it was more than that - social factors and a lack of industry regulation played a huge part in the feverish Living Dead buzz.
For one thing, lowbrow frightfests such as this were traditionally shown in quiet afternoon slots back then, meaning a key demographic would usually be errant kids. Lack of proper certification - combined with the paralysing creepiness of Romero’s unexpected masterpiece - led to more than a few sleepless nights, and guaranteed Living Dead a well-deserved place in the box office history books.
Who Got Rich? We're all richer for the invention of zombie cinema. Each and everyone of us. Oh, and George Romero.
Next: The Blair Witch Project[page-break]
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Sums: Numerous statisticians blamed the millennium bug when their calculators went into meltdown in the final summer of last century. Actually, it was due to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez recouping percentages that didn’t actually fit in the processor.
Starting with $25,000 for basic shooting, and with a post-production bottom line of around $500k, it pulled in just under quarter of a billion in cinemas. We’d say “you do the math”, but even trying would probably dislocate your mind.
Why So Profitable? In short, one of the greatest viral marketing campaigns ever launched in advance of a film. Arguably the most impressive thing about it is that it remains so, even though viral marketing was a relatively arcane art pre-2000.
Actually, scratch that. It’s precisely BECAUSE viral marketing was a relatively arcane art pre-2000 that it worked so well. These days, we probably wouldn’t fall for it...
Who Got Rich? The Blair Witch made Haxan Films millionaires. Then Blair Witch 2 made them idiots.
Next: Paranormal Activity[page-break]
1. Paranormal Activity (2009)
The Sums: Shit, we fell for it again. Made for $15,000 of Oren Peli’s freshman beer fund, it’s already done us all for well over $100m, and counting. If Blair Witch didn’t quite melt your calculator, Paranormal Activity makes a hollow mockery of numbers as we know them.
Why So Profitable? You tell us. Sure, it’s effectively jumpy and it came along just as audiences were beginning to tire of ever-more-dubious torture porn, but the same could easily be said of numerous other recent chillers. There’s certainly some paranormal box office activity afoot here, however you slice it.
Is it too cynical and simplistic to say that it learned from what the pre-release Blair Witch did right - ie. everything - but waited until we’d just about forgotten how fresh that felt? Probably, yes. But we’re saying it anyway.
Who Got Rich? Oren Peli. But we're pretty sure cheerleader Steven Speilberg has some more cash to chuck into his money room. We hear he swims in it, like Scrooge McDuck.
Like This? Then try...
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.
Follow us on Twitter here.