The Ten Most Profitable Movies of All Time

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How horror movies perfected the formula for box office success. Friday the 13th: Paramount Pictures

Horror movies are a surefire way to bring in box office bucks, and 2018 proved audiences still love a scare. In April, post-apocalyptic horror flick A Quiet Place, written and directed by John Krasinski, made $340 million worldwide off a $17 million production budget—a ratio most studios can only dream of.

Critical smash Hereditary made over seven times its budget worldwide, showing that a good idea and well-crafted filmmaking can woo audiences and critics alike. Then, in October, the latest in the long-running Halloween saga made over $253 million worldwide, despite its $10 million production budget.

Looking back at the movies which had the biggest return on investment—or the movies which made the most profit in proportion to their budget—it’s evident that horror movies have always had money-spinning potential. Online gaming company PartyCasino has dug through the data and found which movies grossed the most in the domestic box office in proportion to their budget.

They found that seven of the top ten movies with the biggest return on investment are horror movies, including the top four. The movie at first place made over 7,000 times its budget—an incredible ratio.

Horror movies are particularly adept at turning small budgets into big bucks for a number of reasons. Many turn their lack of production values from a glitch into a feature. The Blair Witch Project’s shaky, lo-fi camerawork became a distinctive visual mark of the movie, making audiences feel as though what they were seeing was really found footage, ramping up the fear factor instead of dampening it.

A scary concept is far more important in a horror movie than a lovingly rendered, visually beautiful execution. A good idea can carry a horror film with far more ease than, say, a prestige biopic, and as technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, the genre is wider open than it’s ever been.

Truly scary horror movies also benefit from more word-of-mouth advertising, too; the terrified, tweeting audience at Hereditary’s Sundance screening was instrumental in building the film’s pre-release hype.

Of course, other genres can make massive returns—this top ten list also features a comedy, a rom-com, and a romantic drama. Low budget independent movies which became mainstream hits, like The Breakfast Club and She’s Gotta Have It, also broke the longer top 20 list.

Using data from PartyCasino, we’ve run down the list of the top ten movies that made the biggest return on investment of all time.

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Lions Gate Films

10. Saw (2004) — Return on investment: 45/1  
Domestic gross: $55.2M.
Summary: Leigh Whannell plays Adam, one of two men chained up in a mysterious chamber. The other, Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), like Adam, has no idea how either of them got there. Neither of them is led to feel optimistic by the man lying between them dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Together, Adam and Dr. Gordon attempt to piece together what has happened to them and who the sadistic madman behind their imprisonment is.
What the critics said: "Though dumber than a box of rocks, Saw forges ahead with the kind of conviction and energy that will keep bad-cinema junkies sitting bolt upright." Scott Tobias, AV Club

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IFC Films

9. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) — Return on investment: 47/1  
Domestic gross: $241.4M.
Summary: Toula (Vardalos) is a Greek-American woman who is in her early thirties and single, with no immediate prospects of changing that status any time soon. This bothers Toula a bit, but not half as much as it distresses her mother (Lainie Kazan) and father (Michael Constantine), who want to send her to Greece in hopes of finding a husband in the old country.
What the critics said: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a very slim movie that succeeds on its own modest terms without pretense or apology. No wonder it's easy to like." Rick Groen, Globe and Mail

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Sherwood Pictures

8. Fireproof (2008) — Return on investment: 66/1  
Domestic gross: $33.5M.
Summary: A heroic fireman locked in a failing marriage accepts his father's challenge to take part in a 40-day experiment designed to teach both husband and wife the true meaning of commitment in this faith-based marriage drama starring Kirk Cameron and Erin Bethea.
What the critics said: "You probably can't blame pastors moonlighting as moviemakers for wanting to pack their film with multiple messages, but the conversion subplot feels shoehorned into the more crucial marital doings." Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly

 

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Paramount Pictures

7. The Devil Inside (2012) — Return on investment: 70/1  
Domestic gross: $53.3M.
Summary: In 1989, emergency responders received a 9-1-1 call from Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) confessing that she had brutally killed three people. 20 years later, her daughter Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) seeks to understand the truth about what happened that night.  
What the critics said: "From the amateur acting, writing and directing to an ending that is shocking only in its stupidity, The Devil Inside will make you puke for all the wrong reasons." Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

 

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Paramount Pictures

6. Friday the 13th (1980) — Return on investment: 71/1  
Domestic gross: $39.8M.
Summary: Entrepreneur Steve Christie (Peter Brouwer) re-opens Camp Crystal Lake after many years during which it has been cursed by murders and bad luck. The young and nubile counselors all begin to die extremely bloody deaths at the hands of an unseen killer during a rainstorm which isolates the camp.  
What the critics said: "For all its shoddiness, the film manages, just barely, to achieve its ignoble goals -- it delivers what it promises." Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

5. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) — Return on investment: 110/1  
Domestic gross: $44.5M.
Summary: Napoleon Dynamite is a quirky, offbeat comedy set in the small Idaho town of Preston. Jon Heder stars in the titular role, a carrot-topped oddball with a decidedly eccentric family that includes his llama-loving, dune-buggy enthusiast grandmother.  
What the critics said: "As slight as the picture is, though, its hero is an indelible creation." Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

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New Line Cinema

4. The Gallows (2015) — Return on investment: 227/1  
Domestic gross: $22.8M.
Summary: Twenty years after a deadly freak accident at a high school play, a misguided attempt to re-stage the play and honor the student proves that some things are better left in the past.
What the critics said: "The lazy way The Gallows bundles its tropes together suggests that its creators' ambitions went no higher than simply getting a horror film made." Lenika Cruz, The Atlantic

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Lions Gate Films

3. Open Water (2004) — Return on investment: 254/1  
Domestic gross: $30.6M.
Summary: Based on a true story, a thriller about an American couple, Daniel and Susan, who are on an island holiday. Upon arrival at their hotel, it becomes clear that Daniel and Susan's relationship is under strain from their workaholic lifestyles. The next morning, the loving and rested couple board a local dive boat for an underwater tour of the reef, but after only 40 minutes or so underwater, accidentally left behind.
What the critics said: "Sharks are nature's most efficient killing machines. Open Water, which co-stars sharks, is the summer cinema's most efficient scaring machine." Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

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Artisan Pictures

2. The Blair Witch Project (1999) — Return on investment: 2341/1  
Domestic gross: $140.5M.
Summary: Presented as a straightforward documentary, the film opens with a title card explaining that in 1994, three students went into the Maryland backwoods to do a film project on the Blair Witch incidents. These kids were never seen again, and the film you are about to see is from their recovered equipment, found in the woods a year later.  
What the critics said: "The scariest shots, from someone's little Hi-8 camcorder, document the students losing their bearings, giving way to panic and finally falling victim, though off-screen, to some ineffably, unphotographably evil presence." Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

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Paramount Pictures

1. Paranormal Activity (2009) — Return on investment: 7194/1  
Domestic gross: $107.9M.
Summary: Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a twentysomething couple who've just moved into a new home in San Diego, CA. Katie has an interest in the paranormal and believes that malevolent spirits have been following her since childhood, though Micah is not so easily convinced. However, after several nights of loud noises and strange happenings, Micah starts to agree with Katie that some sort of ghost may have followed them to the new home.
What the critics said: "It's this feeling of vulnerability that Peli's slow-burning supernatural chiller so effectively exploits, fashioning heart-stopping scares out of almost nothing." Nigel Floyd, Time Out