Well, that’s just silly, calling an article “The Most Profitable Movies of 2014.” We have no idea how profitable movies actually are because we’re missing too many key variables. We usually only know worldwide gross and production budget, when in addition to those two we really need to know the marketing budget, prints and distribution costs, the distribution agreements with both domestic and overseas theaters, i.e., whether or not the studio took 50% or more of the ticket sales, and the details of the home video sales and cable/streaming rights agreements. That doesn’t even get into any kind of ancillary sales from toys, clothes, etc. As the recent hack of Sony Pictures revealed, sometimes we can get a good idea of a movie’s profitability even without all those additional variables if we simply assume the studio took no more than 55% of domestic ticket sales and no more than 40% of international ticket sales. Then again, sometimes we’re way off.
Those are all the reasons why we can’t claim to actually know how much an individual film made for its studio, but sometimes the studios make it easier on us, like when the CFO for Comcast told an investor conference that 2014 was the most profitable year in the 103-year history of Universal Pictures. Wait, how is that possible? Universal didn’t put out a single mega-budget sequel or family friendly animated film, and consequently their highest-grossing film of the year earned less than $500 million worldwide. That’s after both Fast & Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2 finished dang near the $1 billion worldwide mark for the studio in 2013. How, then, did they do better in 2014 than 2013? Because those big gains from Fast & Furious and Despicable Me in 2013 were nearly negated by the big losses of 47 Ronin and R.I.P.D. It turns out that constantly swinging for the fences ultimately screws you in the end because when you strike out you strike out hard. So, in 2014 Universal subsisted on a diverse slate of low-risk, high-reward efforts like Lone Survivor, Ride Along, Non-Stop, Neighbors, The Purge: Anarchy, Lucy, Ouija, and Dumb and Dumber To, a group which only includes two sequels and zero remakes. Even their financial failures, like A Million Ways to Die in the West, presented minimal risk with moderate budgets. They ended up with 4 of the 10 most profitable films of 2014, at least based on budget and worldwide gross. Next year, things go back to normal for them with plenty of sequels (Pitch Perfect 2, Ted 2) and big-budget tentpoles (Furious 7, Jurassic World, Minions).
How’s that going to work out for them, in terms of profitability? Probably the way it does every year: The big budget tentpole releases end the year as the highest-grossing films, but those random, smaller films which turn into unexpectedly big hits end the year as the most profitable films. For example, none of the 10 highest-grossing (worldwide) films of 2014 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Hunger Games, Maleficent, etc.) are among the year’s most profitable releases. They simply cost too dang much to make and market. That can’t really be said for any of the following films:
- Production budget: $60,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $468,060,692
- Profit: 7.8x its budget
The LEGO Movie actually turned out to be a really good movie when it could have so easily simply come across as a glorified LEGO commercial, and based on the estimated profit it’s no wonder that Warner Bros. has not one, not two, but three sequels planned. Well, technically it’s a sequel and two spin-offs, Ninjago and Batman LEGO, but you get my point. LEGO Movie was, somewhat oddly, the rare animated film these days to be a bigger domestic hit ($257m) than international ($210m). That’s probably no more than a minimal concern for WB, though, not when your franchise-starter ends this high above its budget.
- Production budget: $12,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $101,332,962
- Profit: 8.4x its budget
Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen. A Christian film produced by a pastor (T.D. Jakes) and starring a guy, Greg Kinnear, who though well-known recently failed to carry his own TV show (Rake) is NOT supposed to end the year on a list like this. However, Heaven is for Real, based on a best-selling non-fiction account of a boy who briefly died, was revived, and then claimed to have seen heaven in the interim, came out just in time for Easer and posted one of the best opening weekends of all time for any Christian film. It ultimately ended up with $91m domestic, and was only released in select foreign markets, earning the biggest success ($1.9m) in Mexico.
8. The Maze Runner
- Production budget: $34,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $339,422,634
- Profit: 9.9x its budget
By the Sunday morning of The Maze Runner’s opening weekend, Fox had already announced a sequel (The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials) due out almost exactly one year later (9/18/15). At the time, Fox told THR, “We went after teenagers hard and did everything to eventize this film in a play period (Setptember) never tested before. We accomplished the task.” It was yet another case of a film opening outside of a traditional release slot and excelling as a result (e.g., Captain America in April, Guardians of the Galaxy in August, etc.). Adapted from James Dashner’s 2009 YA novel, The Maze Runner’s ultimate domestic haul, $103m, really wasn’t that amazing compared to other YA franchises like Hunger Games, Twilight, or even Divergent. However, Fox was so overjoyed with the results because they knew just how very little they had spent both making and marketing the film. They then must have been delirious with joy when Maze Runner expanded overseas and took off, hitting biggest in China ($23m), France ($23m), and South Korea ($20m). It ended up making 70% of its worldwide gross internationally.
- Production budget: $40,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $458,863,600
- Profit: 11.4x its budget
There wasn’t necessarily some great surge of women supporting Lucy for tokenism reasons (that sure didn’t happen for Luc Besson’s last action heroine film, Columbiana starring Zoe Saldana) nor was there some great rejection of it from men. There was simply a movie with an easy-to-understand premise and an excellent marketing campaign which keenly played off our collective familiarity with Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow persona from some of the biggest comic book movies of all time. They debuted in a weekend against relatively soft competition, Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules, and rode it all the way to the bank, enjoying a fairly solid run after its big opening weekend to ultimately end up with $126m domestic. As with most of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy played bigger overseas, especially in China ($44m) and France ($43m). After Lucy, if there’s an action movie with an easy-to-sell premise and engaging lead performer it may not matter if that lead is male or female.
- Production budget: $9,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $110,602,999
- Profit: 12.2x its budget
In the summer of 2013, the first Purge opened big before tanking in each subsequent weekend, carrying such poor world-of-mouth that Universal’s marketing for the sequel often came off as “We swear – this one’s a lot better!” Actually, it was a lot better, or at least audiences and critics thought so, with Anarchy’s RottenTomatoes score (56%) not being great, necessarily, but at least noticeably higher than its predecessor’s (38%). This translated to Anarchy having a longer tail at the box office, ending with a highest domestic total ($71m vs. $64m) and international total ($38m vs. $24m) than the first Purge.
- Production budget: $18,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $268,157,400
- Profit: 14.88x its budget
Not even Seth Rogen knew Neighbors, which he co-wrote in addition to co-starring in, was going to be this big. After its opening weekend, Universal’s domestic distribution chief told THR, “They never expected this kind of opening. Seth is beyond thrilled,” before pointing out that 53% of the opening weekend audience was female, higher than normal for an R-rated comedy. But why did this happen? Sure, Rogen’s This is the End was a solid hit in 2013, $126m worldwide, but nothing as big as this. Plus, Neighbors co-star Zac Efron had already been in a raunchy comedy, That Awkward Moment, earlier in the year which failed to eclipse $40 million worldwide. Perhaps Rogen and Efron combined was the perfect mix of kind-of young and slightly older, appealing to different demographics (e.g., a Seth Rogen fan would never normally see a Zac Efron movie, and vice versa). Plus, with over half of the audience being female the advertising clearly gave them enough of Efron’s abs and Rose Byrne’s refreshingly not-stereo-typically-wife-character, and the word-of-mouth generated by surprisingly strong reviews didn’t hurt. It might also have been a case of audience conditioning. Ever since The Hangover, there’s always at least one raunchy R-rated comedy which hits big every summer, usually sometime in May which is when Neighbors came out. Ultimately, Neighbors finished with $150m domestic, $118m foreign, the latter total being somewhat of a victory considering the cultural barriers presented by a plot revolving around something (college fraternities) which not every country actually has.
- Production budget: $5,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $75,856,010
- Profit: 15.17x its budget
Ouija was at one point supposed to be a $150m budget special effects extravaganza produced by Michael Bay. It was part of Universal’s efforts to exploit any and all of the Hasbro and Parker Pros. board games, but after the first one of those out of the gate, 2012’s unfortunate Battleship, stunk it up domestically the Ouija movie they were going to make died despite the millions they’d poured into development. Then along came Jason Blum (the uber-producer behind Paranormal Activity, Sinister, Insidious, The Purge), who reasoned he could make a Ouija flick for them for next to nothing. In Blum Universal trusts because he turned Ouija into his 7th no. 1 opening for a horror film. Sure, critics (7% on RottenTomatoes) and audiences (C on CinemaScore) don’t seem to like it all that much, but that doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the bottom line. Plus, some Jason Blum-produced horror movie always comes along and turns into one of the most profitable films of the year. This year that movie was Ouija, which ended with $50m domestic, $26m international.
- Production budget: $12,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $304,186,490
- Profit: 25.35x its budget
Fault in Our Stars had one of the most front-loaded Hollywood opening weekends since 1982, joining the similarly teenage-girl skewering Hannah Montana: The Movie and Twilight films. Females made up roughly 82% of the film‘s audience, an even bigger percentage than the first Twilight (75%), and 79% of the audience was under the age of 25, an almost unheard of ratio (that compares to 55% for the first Twilight). They went head-to-head with the opening weekend of Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow, and not only won but kind of kicked his ass. Similar to Edge of Tomorrow, though, word of mouth on Fault in Our Stars was strong enough that it did actually stick around in theaters for a while, its box office not merely the result of a big opening weekend. It ended its domestic run with $124m, but it was an even bigger hit internationally, especially in Brazil ($31m), for some reason. With such a ginormous profit it’s no surprise that Fault in Our Stars has sparked a movement toward more grounded teen movies in Hollywood.
2. God’s Not Dead
- Production budget: $2,000,000
- Worldwide gross: $62,630,732
- Profit: 31.32x its budget
Christian films not named Passion of the Christ or the Chronicles of Narnia tend to cost so little to make that they ultimately do perfectly fine for themselves but not in a way that you’d ever really notice if you were just looking at box office charts. This year was going to be the big showdown of whether or not Hollywood could tap into that market with biblical epics for the new age and with mass appeal (Noah, Exodus) and what would become of the smaller Christian films (Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real). The end result is that the films which did not alienate their core audience ended up among the best investments of the year while the other two likely struggled to barely turn a profit (Noah) or flat out lost money (Exodus). That being said, it’s certainly possible you still don’t know what God’s Not Dead is. It was made by Pure Flix Entertainment, “Based on the book of the same name by Rice Broocks and Daniel Bashta’s song ‘Like a Lion,’ God’s Not Dead stars Shane Harper as a college student whose philosophy professor forces him to sign a declaration that ‘God is dead.’ When the student refuses, he’s ordered to prove his position that God exists in a series of debates.”
- Production budget: $6,500,000
- Worldwide gross: $252,673,813
- Profit: 38.87x its budget
Prior to Annabelle, 2014 had been a bad year for horror movies at the box office. We witnessed the potential bottoming out of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and countless micro-budget affairs failed to deliver headline-grabbing opening weekends the way similar films had in recent years. The only big success story had been The Purge: Anarchy, which you can argue is more of a horror/action/thriller hybrid.
Then Annabelle came along. The Conjuring stunned Hollywood with its $41m opening in July 2013 on the way to an amazing total gross of $137m domestic/$318m worldwide. Obviously, a sequel was a no-brainer, especially since the film has multiple other case files from real-life demonologists The Warrens to look at for potential story ideas. However, WB wasn’t content with just doing a sequel; they rushed this Annabelle spin-off into production even though anyone who’s actually seen The Conjuring knows that movie brilliantly covered that creepy doll’s history in its opening act. What more story was there to tell? Not much, or at least that seems to be what the critics thought, giving the film a damning 32% on RottenTomatoes. However, audience affection for The Conjuring was so high that Annabelle opened big, and avoided the standard second and third weekend plunges inherent to the horror genre. Its domestic total ($84m) ended up falling well south of The Conjuring’s, but it wasn’t too far behind the pace internationally, turning into a hot ticket in Mexico ($18m) and Brazil ($16m).
So, a horror sequel made on the cheap, a faith-based film that appealed to an oft-overlooked audience, and a weepie adapted from a beloved YA novel driven by an ingenious social media campaign which mobilized its core audience of teenage girls were the three most profitable films last year. The big money is in comic book movies and pretty much anything Disney or Michael Bay makes, but the real profit is in cranking out micro-budget horror flicks (The Purge, Ouija, Annabelle), appealing to untapped audiences (Heaven is For Real, God’s Not Dead), taking a chance on something audiences want but haven’t been given (Lucy) or on a new release pattern (The Maze Runner), making a good film out of something which could have been a cheap cash-grab (The LEGO Movie), and sometimes just hitting gold even though you have no idea how you did it (Neighbors).