Beating the Spread: A Look at Some of the Biggest Surprise Hits at the Box Office in Recent Years

After a year in which certain politicians performed far better than pre-election polls expected, here at Boxoffice we asked ourselves the equivalent question for the entertainment industry. Which movies have most over-performed their anticipated box office projected by analysts throughout the industry?
Here are five of the films from the 21st century which earned the most money relative to what anybody anticipated. 

DEADPOOL

Undoubtedly the biggest box office surprise of 2016, this was indeed a superhero movie, but it broke almost every rule that had helped make superhero movies Hollywood’s highest-grossing category.

Deadpool was rated R, considered the ultimate nonstarter for the lucrative, teen-friendly superhero genre. It was released in February, neither the summer nor holiday seasons when virtually every other superhero film had been released up to that point. Ryan Reynolds starred in the title role, despite low expectations following his previous superhero turn in the 2011 box office disappointment Green Lantern. And Deadpool was a comparatively obscure superhero, with little name recognition outside the existing comic book fandom.

Instead, the film posted a $132.4 million opening weekend, smashing the previous inflation-adjusted February opening-weekend record set by The Passion of the Christ and R-rated opening-weekend record set by 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded. Put another way, Deadpool’s opening was larger than the $116.6 million that Green Lantern earned during its entire run. (And that opened in June, traditionally one of the best months for box office.)

Deadpool ended with $363.0 million total, higher than the $330.3 million earned by the same year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s doubtful that a single person predicted it at the beginning of the year, considering that Batman and Superman separately had each produced some of the highest-grossing films of all time, and this was their first joint appearance after decades of speculation.

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING

IFC Films has released 397 films in its history. Their second- and third-highest grossing releases are 2014’s Boyhood with $25.3 million and 2002’s Y Tu Mama Tambien with $13.8 million. Leaving those two in the dust was 2002’s romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with its astounding $241.4 million. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, that would be an even more incredible $356.6 million today. That’s not merely a little bit more than the studio’s next-closest films—it’s so much more that it almost boggles the mind.

Greek Wedding had so much stacked against it. The title was a mouthful. There were no A-list stars. And the film only started playing in 108 theaters upon its April 2002 release, gradually expanding and only reaching its eventual peak of 2,016 theaters a full six months later, in October, after hugely positive word of mouth.

The four highest-grossing films of 2002 were probably the four that most analysts predicted at the start of the year: Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Nobody could have predicted number five. (Alas, Greek Wedding’s 2016’s sequel earned a comparatively paltry $59.6 million.)

Another fun fact: it’s also the highest-grossing film of this century to have never reached first place at the weekend box office, spending three consecutive weekends earning the silver medal behind Signs, Barbershop, and SwimFan.

AVATAR

Nobody thought this 2009 science fiction fantasy would bomb, but the levels by which it surpassed almost every box office record in the book were practically unfathomable pre-release.

The film opened in December 2009 to “only” $77.0 million—not an unimpressive sum, to be sure, but not in the top 100 highest opening weekends of all time when adjusted for inflation. Some wrote off its box office potential right then.

The next weekend, something incredible happened: it declined by only 1.8 percent, which for all intents and purposes means it earned about the same amount on its second weekend as its first. For a film debuting in wide release, this virtually never happens; even a decline of as little as 20 or 25 percent is cause for celebration. Adjusted for inflation, the film now holds the ninth-best second weekend of all time.

But it was after that when eyeballs in the studio’s accounting office truly started popping. Get ready for an onslaught of numbers: adjusted for inflation, Avatar now claims the 2nd-highest third weekend, the highest fourth weekend, 2nd-highest fifth weekend, 3rd-highest sixth weekend, 2nd-highest seventh weekend, 4th-highest eighth weekend, 3rd-highest ninth weekend, 3rd-highest 10th weekend, and 5th-highest 11th weekend of all time.

Ending up with $749.7 million, the film became the penultimate earner at the box office of this century, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11

Documentaries, almost as a rule, do not make huge profits, but even some of the most loved and (seemingly) most watched documentaries of this century were middling performers at the cinema: 2003’s Spellbound made $5.7 million, 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom made $4.9 million, and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man made $3.6 million.

Fahrenheit revolutionized the entire genre’s box office potential with its $119.1 million total, or about $165.2 million adjusted for inflation. Its opening gross alone of $23.9 million ($33.1 million adjusted) exceeded the entire sum of director Michael Moore’s previous highest performing film, 2002’s Bowling for Columbine—a film that had been considered a huge financial success by documentary standards.

Audiences flocked to Fahrenheit’s relevant and controversial political message, wanting to see what the water-cooler crowd was talking about before the election instead of waiting for the DVD release. To this day it remain by far the highest-grossing documentary of all time, earning tens of millions above the second-place nature documentary, 2005’s March of the Penguins (which itself could be a contender for inclusion in this article).

BRIDESMAIDS

Female-centric Hollywood films, especially comedies, were a rare sight indeed back in May 2011. On paper, Bridesmaids seemed an unlikely candidate to break that mold.

The three leads were Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph – arguably two of the less famous Saturday Night Live cast members of the 2000s and 2010s, at least prior to the film’s release—and an at-the-time virtually unknown Melissa McCarthy. All the leads were 40-ish women, and the title seemed to tell men they wouldn’t be interested. And like the aforementioned Deadpool, it was rated R and going up that month against the expensive PG-13 blockbusters Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It opened in second place but then dropped only 20.4 percent in its second weekend, then 20.7 percent in its third, then 27.3 percent in its fourth, and then 16.4 percent in its fifth on terrific word of mouth. In fact, cinemas accommodated the demand by playing it in more theaters nationwide on its second, third, and even its fourth weekend than it played in upon its debut. That’s essentially unheard of for a film that begins in wide release.

The movie ended with $169.1 million in total, earning improbable Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Original Screenplay. (Oscar almost always nominates late-year dramas instead of summer comedies.) More broadly, it spawned the big rise in R-rated female-driven comedies this decade, one of the most unpredicted—and most lucrative—Hollywood trends of the 2010s. In the five years since Bridesmaids, The Heat made $159.5 million, Bad Moms made $113.2 million, Spy made $110.8 million, and Trainwreck made $110.2 million. It’s questionable whether any of those would have been greenlit by the financially conscious studios if not for the box office success of Bridesmaids.

Jesse Rifkin

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    matija juric February 09, 2017

    Thank you for the article:) i would add paranormal activity, the ring, lord of the rings and passion of the christ TTVOMJ

    Reply
    • Avatar
      bmg February 09, 2017

      Definitely agreed on Passion of the Christ. Quite the out-of-nowhere surprise blockbuster.

      Paranormal Activity and The Ring are horror movies that made $100 million. The Conjuring, The Grudge, and The Blair Witch Project all did the same, and many others have come very close. I’d say The Sixth Sense is by far the most surprising supernatural horror hit, with almost $300 million.

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    David G February 09, 2017

    Zootopia should be added to this list. And I don’t think Avatar was that much of a surprise. It had a huge marketing campaign and used its technology as a way to draw people in.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Don't Mind Me Now February 20, 2017

      The surprise wasn’t its being a hit. The surprise was how it held up so well week after week after week for nearly two months and kept going even after that. You can’t pin that on just marketing, or else why wouldn’t studios just market everything to death?

      I would put Frozen on here before Zootopia. Most pre-release projections for Frozen thought it would make less than Tangled. Instead it set records on weekend 1 and then legged it like a champ for three-and-a-half months, and then became the biggest animated movie ever. Zootopia was undeniably impressive, but it had the benefit of the post-Frozen Disney Animation brand backing it up and was expected to do pretty well from the beginning (even if it ultimately overperformed projections).

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    DangerS February 09, 2017

    Frozen?

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    reece February 09, 2017

    “Sing” is now the highest grossing movie to never hit #1 at the box office..

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    bmg February 09, 2017

    Good article! Definitely 5 of the most surprising box office blockbusters of the 21st century so far. I would add to the list:
    -American Sniper (technically not such a surprise it was a hit, but $107 million opening weekend???),
    -Borat (opened #1 against two family franchise films during the holidays, made even more in weekend #2 than weekend #1),
    -Passion of the Christ (as previous commenter mentioned), and
    -Chicago (a blockbuster MUSICAL? What decade is this, the 1960’s?)

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Telémaco February 10, 2017

    Nothing can be compared with the success of My big…
    Remember again it started in 108 theatres! and it´s top weeks were in the 15th to 25 th!!!!
    This is something from another age, that probably never happen again.
    The difficulty ofor a movie of this nature gets 241 million is absolutely extreme.
    The others premiered in much more theatres had much more publicity, etc. I think this move is the biggest sleeper all time with big diference to others.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    JJG February 13, 2017

    I was working in the movie theatres in 1982. I seem to recall that ET may have actually made more the second weekend than the first.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Don't Mind Me Now February 20, 2017

      That wasn’t actually that uncommon in those days. Slower release patterns, no instant access to online word of mouth. Though E.T. was a surprise in that it was still raking in millions per week A WHOLE YEAR after it came out.

      Reply

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