The first few months of 2011 were pretty dire for the box office, with the North American box office falling off 20% from the year before that (which consisted, of course, of the three months in 2010 when Avatar was destroying all possible box office records). The rest of the year was mostly a recovery; even though the box office will finish down five or six percent or so from last year, it's still going to be the third highest-grossing year in Hollywood history domestically. An off-year, sure, but if Avatar's grosses had been thrown into 2011 instead of 2010, it'd be a lot closer than many of the sky-is-falling Hollywood commentators would have you believe.
Still, it was an interesting year for movies. Alex already guided you through some of the more egregious examples of movies that last money, with Mars Needs Moms probably causing more than a few people to lose their jobs, and Robert Zemeckis' version of Yellow Submarine summarily getting cancelled in the aftermath. There were also a number of movies that made Scrooge McDuck-esque levels of filthy lucre, though, and the list below will shed some light on the most purely profitable films of the year.
Note first, though, that this list is solely for the movies that made the largest net profit for their studios. There are a large number of films that do extremely well in relation to their budget, of course. Paranormal Activity 3 made over $200 million on a $5 million budget, for example; Insidious turned around $97 million worldwide while only costing $1.5 million. Bridesmaids was an almost shocking success, turning out $288 million worldwide on a budget of just $32.5 million. The profits for all of these movies put together don't add up to Deathly Hallows, Part II, but stretching a limited budget into a lot of money is still something that any producer is going to be lauded for. Every studio desires these kind of low-budget successes, but they're more difficult to pull off than they might seem.
Still, there's something to be said about the good, old-fashioned home run, and each of the films on the list below are going to allow their studios to bankroll a dozen riskier projects in 2012. 2011 was the first year to see three separate movies cross the billion-dollar plateau at the global box office, even if two of them were pretty crappy. There were plenty of other films that managed to make a decent amount of coin, though.
A few caveats, however. The budgets below (mainly sourced from Box Office Mojo) are generally either public estimates or obtained via word-of-mouth, so there's no guaranteeing their accuracy in most cases. In some cases, studios will supply budgets to their films, but these are also often likely to be incorrect, either on the low side to make them seem like they're proceeding more efficiently, or on the high side to reduce their need to share profits with profit participants. Also, around half of the money a movie makes at the box office is generally split with the theaters that show it. Lastly, those profit participants (actors, directors, producers, sometimes writers) will also eat into the ultimate profit of a movie.
With that said, let's take a look at the most profitable movies of the year, shall we?
- Budget: $93 million
- Made: $481 million
- Profit: $388 million
I don't think anyone really expected this to be as big of a hit as it was, but hey: unexpected quality equals good word of mouth equals lots of money. Taking up the reins as the last big effects movie of the summer probably helped a bunch, and waiting ten years since Tim Burton's disastrous Planet Of The Apes remake also likely contributed to its success. But, in the end, the movie just delivered, especially in the startling good CGI for the animals, as well as Andy Serkis' remarkable performance as Caesar.
- Budget: $90 million
- Made: $485 million
- Profit: $395 million
Hey, you like talking animals? Well, maybe not, but your kids probably do, and that's certainly true worldwide, as Rio managed to take home $143 million dollars domestically but $341 million in the rest of the world. Personally, I think we can lay all of the praise here at the feet of the guys who made Angry Birds Rio, which has to be one of my favorite movie tie-in products in ages.
8. The Smurfs
- Budget: $110 million
- Made: $562 million
- Profit: $452 million
Another CGI kids film that ridiculously outperformed overseas, with $142 million domestically and $419 million in the rest of the world. It was bottomlessly awful, of course, but that doesn't mean that we're not going to see Smurfs 2-8 coming along over the next few years. At least we'll have Neil Patrick Harris to make the running times slightly more bearable.
- Budget: $80 million
- Made: $581 million
- Profit: $501 million
In the summer of R-rated comedies, the sequel to the movie that revitalized the genre was still well ahead of the competition. Many of those movies did quite well, mind you, with Bridesmaids turning back something like a $250 million profit, but they're all looking up at The Hangover Part II with envy. Even though it cost more than twice as much as the original film, Part II made over $100 million more than it did worldwide, making Part III a relative certainty.
6. Fast Five
- Budget: $125 million
- Made: $626 million
- Profit: $501 million
What's surprising isn't that Fast Five made a lot of money. What's surprising is how much more money it made around the world than 2009's Fast And Furious made. That movie did a respectable $363 million worldwide, but its sequel, just two years later, with the same director and many of the same actors, somehow managed to rake in $260 million more dollars. That's inexplicable to me, but hey: people like fast cars and hot girls, I guess.
- Budget: $150 million
- Made: $665 million
- Profit: $515 million
Hey, did I mention yet how important the worldwide box office is to CGI movies with talking animals? If not, look no further than Kung Fu Panda 2, which was considered to be something of a disappointment in the States, where it took in almost $50 million less than the original film did. It managed to make up that loss overseas, though, and actually wound up making $35 million more than the original movie did in total. If China can expand their theater-building efforts, you can expect Kung Fu Panda 3 and beyond to only accelerate in terms of total grosses.
- Budget: $110 million
- Made: $652 million
- Profit: $542 million
This film's budget is a bit lower than it would've been had it not shot with Part II at the same time, of course, but that doesn't mean that it still wasn't one of the most popular films of the year worldwide. It's likely less profitable than the last few films in the series have been, though, as the main trio of actors at the center of it apparently asked for hefty raises for the last two films.
- Budget: $250 million
- Made: $1.043 billion
- Profit: $793 million
The most expensive movie on this list, and estimated to be the fourth most expensive film to ever hit theaters. That doesn't matter, though, when you have Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Heck, even being pretty crappy doesn't matter all that much, as On Stranger Tides managed to tone down the craziness of At World's End for a more straightforward tale of mermaids and the Fountain of Youth, and wound up with Depp's second billion-dollar movie in as many years.
- Budget: $195 million
- Made: $1.123 billion
- Profit: $928 million
We're not done with these movies yet. Here's hoping that someone else can take over for Michael Bay, deliver a movie that's under two hours long, cast someone more likable than Shia LaBeouf, and maybe make a robot fight or two where you can tell what the hell is going on. It's up in the air as to whether I liked this movie or On Stranger Tides less, but at least this one had robots and the moon and a pretty lady in it. I'd even put up with her in another movie if her boyfriend The Stath comes aboard as the new leading man.
- Budget: $125 million
- Made: $1.328 billion
- Profit: $1.203 billion
One of the best Harry Potter films benefited from a lower-than-usual budget thanks to the fact that it was produced at the same time as Deathly Hallows, Part 1. It also benefited from the fact that it wound up as the #3 all-time grossing film worldwide, thanks largely due to the fact that it was the last film in the series, and no one really wanted to be the guy who missed seeing that in the theaters. A suitably epic and watchable blockbuster, Part II is one of only three films to make over a billion dollars in straight-up profit.