Why The Highest Grossing Films Are Not Always The Best

Why The Highest Grossing Films Are Not Always The Best

I was recently reading a blog article titled The 50 Highest-Grossing Movies in History, which I had clicked on because I recalled seeing a similarly titled article earlier this year and was curious to see if the list had changed much. I perused the list moving quickly to the top 10 of the list which is where I became surprised. Surprised because I was certain that the list was tremendously different to the previous one I had read, which made me suspicious as to its accuracy. The top ten in the blog article cited above was as follows:


  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
  2. Black Panther (2018)
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
  4. Furious 7 (2015)
  5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
  6. Jurassic World (2015)
  7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  9. Titanic (1997)
  10. Avatar (2009)


I was sure that the list was incorrect because I distinctly remember Gone with the Wind (1939) being at the top of the list, so I began to do a bit of my own research and realised that the title of that article was a bit misleading; the list had not taken into account inflation and therefore it is not fair to call them the highest grossing films “in history”. Here are the highest grossing films adjusted for inflation:

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  2. Jaws (1975)
  3. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  4. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  5. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  6. The Sound of Music (1965)
  7. Star Wars (1977)
  8. Titanic (1997)
  9. Avatar (2009)
  10. Gone with the Wind (1939)

After conducting this research it got me to think: How many of these films on this list are considered great? Not merely good, but great. Though most of the films on that list I am enormously fond of, I don’t think any of those would feature in my personal list of my top ten favourite films. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in thinking this. If we are to compare the above list to Sight and Sound’s Poll The 50 Greatest Films of All Time, it’s very interesting to see the differences between the two lists. Would you like to take a guess as to how many of the top 10 highest grossing films also appear in the top 10 of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time according to Sight and Sound’s Poll? Not a single one. And even if we’re being generous and extend the scope to the whole top 50 list, we are still unable to find any of the films that are listed above.

This led me to another question which is the whole reason I decided to write this article in the first place: Is the revenue generated by a film indicative of how good it is? Traditionally the success of a film has been measured by its theatrical box office earnings, mostly because the data is readily available unlike that of home DVD and Blu-Ray releases and even online streaming. You could argue that this is a sensible way of measuring a film’s success; ticket sales represent the number of people who have seen the film and therefore the higher the box office revenue, the more people that have seen the film.

However where I take issue is the word ‘success’, or rather what it means for a film to be successful. From the perspective of a production company the success of film really means its financial success: how much revenue can we produce from this product? As for the perspective of the filmmaker or director, a successful film could mean a number of things. It ultimately depends on the intent of the director, but I would argue that a film is successful when it lets you lose yourself with what you are seeing on the screen, when it gets you to look at life in a different way and when it gives you a further glimpse into what it means to be human. Of course there are films that may do none of those things but still be considered as great films by myself and others, but I most certainly do not measure the success of a film by the profits it makes. It’s possible to go down a separate road by using the number of awards won as a measure of a film’s success. Though by doing that we fall into another trap, since award ceremonies are wrought with so much bias, which I will refrain from discussing at the risk of going on tangent. In any case, I also repudiate the use of awards to measure the success of a film.

Now how do we reconcile the extreme financial success of the highest grossing films listed above with its relative strength as a great film? As I mentioned previously none of films listed above are by any means bad films (except perhaps Avatar), but as already pointed out there seems to be a discrepancy between how much money a film makes, and how it stands up as a work of art. What we can see from looking at the list is that most of the films on that list are considered to be Epics. Extravagant costumes and sets, wide-spanning narratives, huge amounts of extras and large scale productions overall are just some of the characteristics that define an Epic. It’s the grand scale of these films which must attract such large audiences into cinemas to see them. But this doesn’t seem to be enough to account for the amount of money these films grossed at the box office. By examining the top ten list, and the extended top fifty list which I originally cited, it appears that the main reason why these films have excelled financially are because they were marketed so well. Take Avatar for example. Avatar was marketed as a massive CGI film to be screened in 3D, which was a big deal in 2009, since 3D wasn’t yet commonplace in cinemas. Gone with the Wind was, and still is, recognised for being a highly ambitious film that was a work of grandeur, and was marketed as such. It is not surprising that two Star Wars films make the list since George Lucas essentially created a merchandising empire after the release of the original Star Wars film.


What becomes salient to me when examining the list is that films are treated differently depending what relation on has to the film. There is the view which I, and probably the vast majority of people hold, which is that film is an art form, and a unique one at that. But there is the alternative view which treats films like a commodity and as mere entertainment, which must be treated like any other commodity and subjected to the demands of the market. The latter perspective is one I do not care much for, however I am very much of the reality that films must make money in order for the industry to survive.

The success of a film ultimately comes down to taste, but what I’ve tried to point out in this article is that we should stop judging films based on how much money it earns but rather judging it by what we think from our own experience of it.




Image 1: Silver Screenings (2018).Rhett Butler. Retrieved from https://silverscreenings.org/2018/01/24/why-clark-gable-is-a-perfect-rhett-butler/

Image 2: Entertainment Earth (n.d.). Han Solo, Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker. Retrieved from http://news.entertainmentearth.com/2015/02/06/star-wars-a-new-hope-original-bad-review/

Image 3: Variety (2012). Marvel’s Avengers Poster. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2012/film/news/how-marvel-assembled-its-avengers-1118053403/

List of highest-grossing films (2018). In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#cite_note-Guinness_2015-119