Cash Kings: Biggest Box Office Winners Of The Decade

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The decade at the dawn of the 21st century saw some magnificent advances at the movie theater. Technology expanded and improved special effects, IMAX popularity increased giving the cinematic experience a new boost and 3D enjoyed a new wave of popularity. But, one of the biggest jumps at theaters happened, not on the screen, but at the box office.

In the eighties we spent an average of around $3.50 for a movie ticket, and in the nineties a cool $4.50. The aughts saw prices jump to an average of $6.00. But we love our movies, so higher ticket prices couldn’t keep us away. In the nineties we spent over $57 billion at the box office. This decade we blew over $91 billion. If it hadn’t been for all that internet piracy that the web introduced, it might have been closer to $92 billion.

Our tastes in movies changed as well. If you look at the top ten biggest grossing movies of the nineties, there was only a single sequel (well, one prequel…George Lucas’ disastrous Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace to be specific). In the last ten years, we crowned eight sequels with our highest cash honors. Apparently we preferred movies that don’t require us to learn the names of any new main characters.

Here are the biggest earners of the aughts, and how much we paid to watch them.

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

All three parts of Jackson’s brilliant vision of Tolkien’s classic fantasy epic were either the number one or number two cash earners the years they were released, but only two of them made it into the top ten list for the decade. The Two Towers barely beat out Finding Nemo by two million dollars for the number ten spot, and there’s a possible chance It will slip off the list if Avatar holds up its box office performance. Until then, the movie that proved an entirely CG main character doesn’t have to be as lame as Jar Jar Binks remains one of the biggest cash cows of the aughts.

9. The Passion of the Christ (2004)

If you ever wondered why filmmakers regularly make a big deal out of what rating their movie is going to get, keep in mind that a PG-13 movie will usually make more money than a similar movie that’s rated R. One f-bomb is won’t mess you up, but two will set your box office back. Of the top 50 grossing movies of all time, only three earned an ‘R’. Thanks in part to churches buying out whole theater screenings, Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus was the highest earning rated R movie of all time, but it’s only the ninth highest of the decade. It’s also probably the movie that saw more under-aged audience members in the theater than any other rated ‘R’ film. Apparently violence in film is bad for kids when its gladiators fighting, but it’s OK if it involves flogging the Son of God.

8. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

There haven’t been a lot of movie sequels that turn out better than the original. Spider-Man 2 was one of them. It didn’t make more money than its predecessor, but it did make enough to be the eighth biggest earner of the decade. Fortunately, it did outsell the painful third part in the series. For those of you who care, Spider-man 3 was number twelve.

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Despite its lengthy run-time and seven different endings, The Return of the King still saw hefty ticket sales and became the best selling movie of 2003. It’s also the only one of the top ten earners to have won the Oscar for best picture. Awards don’t usually go hand in hand with box office blockbusters, but once in awhile a movie makes big money and draws Oscar attention. ROTK is also one of only three in the decade’s top ten with a budget under $100 million, along with Two Towers and Passion of the Christ. Further proof that you don't have to spend a ton of money to make a ton of money. Good movies get made in spite of their budget, not because of them.

6. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

There haven’t been a lot of three-part movie series in the last decade where the third movie was an improvement on the first two movies. Crappy part threes, Shrek 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Spider-Man 3 to name a few, tend to be the rule instead of the exception. Revenge of the Sith was one such exception, but that’s not saying much given the disasters that were episodes one and two. As the top ticket seller in 2005 the movie had a lot to be proud of at the box office. Too bad there wasn’t much of anything else to be proud of during George Lucas’ final installment in the tale of the force’s “chosen one”.

5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

The aught’s top ten list is littered with sequels, but Revenge of the Fallen’s presence is absolutely baffling. Movies that make more than $300 million suggest an audience which sees the movie more than once, but it’s hard to believe that anyone would subject themselves to this particularly painful sequel a second or even third time. The original movie just barely managed that difficult balance between giant-robot action and entertaining story, giving audiences a reason to give a sequel a chance. But after you’ve seen Revenge of the Fallen once, and discovered that adrenaline charge action can actually be so over-done that it becomes boring, it’s hard to imagine anyone going back for more. But they did, to the tune of $400 million, making it the fifth biggest movie of the decade.

4. Spider-Man (2002)

The movie that brought respectability back to the comic-book hero genre, Spider-Man also launched a movement to give every Tom, Dick and Harry that ever appeared in a comic book his own movie franchise. While it no longer holds any of the major records it broke, Spider-Man presided over a ticket selling spree that included biggest opening weekend and fastest to $100, $200 and $300 million. It was the biggest movie of 2002, and set a new standard for the concept of the big time blockbuster.

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was one of my favorite movies of the decade, and I couldn’t help but be excited when they announced Dead Man’s Chest. While I’m not a big fan of sequels, I had high hopes for this one. In the end I was disappointed, but audiences were still entranced by the return of Captain Jack Sparrow. As proof of how disappointed others were as well, the third movie in the series only made enough cash to be the twentieth biggest earner of the decade.

2. Shrek 2 (2004)

Animated movies are always present in the top ten movies of the year, but it’s rare that they do so well in the top ten for the decade. Shrek 2 is the only one on the list for the aughts, but it’s a well deserved spot. It’s arguably one of the more entertaining animated movies out there and certainly held up to the standards of the first Shrek movie (unlike the cluster that was the third Shrek entry). As cash earners go, it’s not only second for the aughts, it’s the fourth highest grossing movie of all time.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

If you didn’t expect to see this one at the top of the charts, you clearly weren’t paying attention during the summer of 2008 when Dark Knight was breaking records left and right. One of only two movies in history to ever cross the $500 million mark, the biggest cash cow of the decade wasn’t the biggest cash cow of all time. That distinction still rests with 1997’s Titanic and its $600 million domestic total. But thanks to a solid combination of great movie-making, a predecessor that was also well made, and the tragic death of one of its stars just months before the movie went to theaters, The Dark Knight banked a hefty $533 million. It’s also one of only four movies to ever earn more than $1 billion world-wide (along with Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).

One to Grow On: Given its current box office performance, Avatar is on the road to reaching $350 million and making the top ten of the decade. Follow along with our weekly box office report to see if it makes the list.

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