ENTERTAINMENT: ‘Avatar’ & 9 Other Films That Defied Box Office Expectations

'Avatar' & 9 Other Films That Defied Box Office Expectations

‘Avatar’ & 9 Other Films That Defied Box Office Expectations

Avatar: The Way of Water just became 2022’s highest-grossing movie, cementing the franchise as a box-office juggernaut. Of course, it all began with the first film in the series, 2009’s Avatar, which grossed more than $2 billion worldwide, becoming the all-time highest-grossing film. Few people expected Avatar to be so huge, but the film defied every expectation, capturing audiences’ attention and building on positive word of mouth.
Like Avatar, these other movies captured fans’ interest, becoming unexpected commercial hits. Against all odds, these now-iconic pictures soared to the top of the box office, cementing their place in cinematic history.
Avatar (2009) – $2.923 Billion

It’s not every day that original ideas dominate the box office. Indeed, it’s usually the franchises that rank atop the box office, so when James Cameron’s Avatar came out in 2009, few people expected it to become such a massive success. Cameron is a guarantee, and audiences knew the film would likely do good; however, it was almost impossible to anticipate just how massive it would be.

The film benefited from strong word of mouth, decreasing less than 10% during its second and third weekends. Avatar eventually grossed $2.9 billion with three releases, becoming the all-time highest-grossing film and cementing Cameron as a game-changing director in the action genre. Its sequel performed similarly, confirming the franchise as one of the most important in cinematic history.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014) – $773.2 Million

James Gunn took over the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was rising to become the undisputed leader at the box office. After the record-breaking success of 2012’s The Avengers, the MCU was building a reputation for being too big to fail, but many wondered if the Guardians would break that string of success.

After all, the Guardians were D-level characters in the Marvel catalog, and the film would come out near the end of the summer, in August. Alas, Guardians of the Galaxy defied expectations and eventually grossed $773 million. It became one of the most acclaimed MCU movies, launched Chris Pratt into stardom, and turned the Guardians into Marvel A-listers. Not bad for an IP that few had heard about prior to the film’s release.
‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) – $1.006 Billion

It might be hard to believe, but Batman hasn’t always been a box-office hit. 1989’s Batman remained the highest-grossing Caped Crusader film for years, with $411 million worldwide, a record not even Christopher Nolan could beat with his gritty 2005 reboot. In fact, Batman Begins grossed only $373 million worldwide; in hindsight, it’s a surprise a sequel was even greenlit, considering its hefty production cost.

However, things changed with the 2008 release of The Dark Knight. The film surpassed every expectation, becoming the first superhero film to gross $1 billion and earning critical raves. The Dark Knight was a game-changer for the superhero genre, proving that a comic book property could dominate the box office and attract critical praise. It also cemented Nolan as the go-to blockbuster auteur, a title he still holds today.
‘Forrest Gump’ (1994) – $678.2 Million

The ’90s were probably the last decade where an actor’s name could solely carry a movie to the top of the charts. And in the ’90s, few actors were as beloved or respected as Tom Hanks. Following his Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia, Hanks teamed with Robert Zemeckis for the comedy-drama Forrest Gump, about the larger-than-life adventures of a slow-witted Alabama man.

Forrest Gump grossed a whopping $678 million worldwide, although only half was during its initial release. It was also a massive critical hit, although it has been negatively re-appreciated in the new millennium. Forrest Gump was Hanks’ highest-grossing project until 2006’s The Da Vinci Code grossed over $700 million.
‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) – $794.9 Million

Steven Spielberg has made multiple iconic movies throughout his fifty-year career. However, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might be the film that turned him into the Steven Spielberg. Centering on an alien left behind on Earth and his unlikely friendship with a young boy, E.T. shattered box office records and held the title for the all-time highest-grossing film for eleven years.

E.T. grossed $792 million worldwide, which becomes even more impressive considering its meager budget of $10 million. E.T. was also a critical success, earning nine Oscar nominations and winning four. When E.T. was finally dethroned as the all-time highest-grossing film, it was by another Spielberg film: 1993’s Jurassic Park.
‘Saw’ (2004) – $103.9 Million

Horror is a very lucrative genre for Hollywood. It’s usually very cheap to produce, making it easier to succeed at the box office compared to the massive blockbusters that carry lofty production tags. Take 2004’s Saw, starring Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. The film, which follows two men locked in a room and put through a deadly test by a serial killer, cost only $1 million to make and grossed over $100 million at the box office.

The film was released on October 2004 and defied expectations, becoming one of the all-time most profitable horror movies. Saw spawned a franchise that produced multiple films and standalone projects; the latest in the series, Saw X, set to premiere on October 27, 2023.
‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (2002) – $368.7 Million

Although it might seem like romantic comedies are one of Hollywood’s most successful genres, the truth is that few rom-coms are box-office juggernauts. That’s what makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the best feel-good movies ever, so special. The film stars Nia Vardalos as Toula, a Greek-American woman who falls in love and becomes engaged with Ian Miller, a WASP school teacher played by John Corbett.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a sleeper hit, grossing $368 million against a production budget of only $5 million. The film is the highest-grossing rom-com at the domestic box office and was a critical darling, earning Vardalos an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007) – $193.4 Million

Horror once again proves its dominance at the box office. Produced for almost nothing, 2007’s Paranormal Activity became a commercial smash and a bonafide cultural phenomenon. A pioneer of the found footage boom of the late 2000s and early 2010s, the film centers on a couple who set up cameras at their house after suspecting a supernatural presence is haunting them.

Made for a meager $15,000 as an independent production, Paranormal Activity grossed $193 million worldwide. The film’s success spawned a series, with eight films produced so far. Many claim Paranormal Activity is the most profitable film in Hollywood history, although many analysts have stated it’s hard to determine such figures.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) – $213.5 Million

It’s not an overstatement to call Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of the all-time best martial arts films. Ang Lee’s masterpiece stars Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi and future Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh and tells the story of two warriors who must recover a stolen sword.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a resounding hit, grossing $213 million. It was the first foreign language film to earn $100 million at the domestic box office and remains the highest-grossing foreign language film in the US. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also a critical success, receiving ten Oscar nominations and winning four.
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022) – $1.489 Billion

The long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film Top Gun finally arrived in 2022 after years of delays and a thirty-year journey to production. Top Gun: Maverick stars Tom Cruise, reprising the role that made him a star, and follows Maverick as he trains a new generation of pilots, including the son of his late friend, Goose.

Expectations for Top Gun: Maverick were uncertain. However, the film defied the odds by becoming a bonafide critical hit and the second film to gross $1 billion during the pandemic era. It eventually grossed $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office, becoming the highest-grossing project in Cruise’s career and proving that nostalgia goes a long way when done right.

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