Before 2000, only one movie, Titanic, had earned more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. This decade, that magic mark was crossed by three films, all sequels: the third Lord of the Rings, the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Dark Knight, second in the latest Batman series. That proved what everyone knew: audiences like familiar properties. Worldwide, of the decade's top 20-grossing films, only four were not sequels: Finding Nemo and the first installments of the Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings franchises. In the domestic market, just one film in the top 20 was not part of a franchise: The Passion of the Christ. The astronomical sums the biggest movies earned helped the industry break box-office records. In 2009, for the first time, the annual take at domestic theaters topped $10 billion.
To make more, Hollywood spends more. The average movie budget, not including hefty surcharges for prints and advertising, doubled in 10 years, from $53 million in 1998 to $106 million in 2008. (In the same period, inflation was up 32%, and the average ticket price rose 53%.) Eleven films this decade had budgets of $200 million or more; of movies made before 2000, only Titanic had cost that much. If you believe the numbers supplied by studios, the most expensive movie of all time is the 2007 Spider-Man 3, at $258 million, followed by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at $250 million and Avatar at $237 million. These films' makers weren't shot at sunrise; most mega-pricey movies end up firmly in the black. Of the 11 most expensive pictures, only four Superman Returns, The Golden Compass, the second Narnia film and Terminator Salvation failed to earn at least twice their production costs in theatrical revenue. And once in a while, a movie made for peanut shells becomes a big hit. In 2009 it was Paranormal Activity, which was made for $15,000 and has earned, worldwide, nearly $150 million, or about 10,000 times its budget.
Of course, inflation makes mockery of these ginormous totals. So we end with a spot quiz: In real dollars, how many of the 25 all-time top-grossing movies came out in the past decade? None! The Dark Knight, the decade's top film in real-dollar earnings, is 27th on Box Office Mojo's all-time list. The Potter, Pirate and Shrek films did fine, but they still made less than a half-dozen Disney cartoon features. In the real-dollar top 15, the only movie made in the last 25 years is Titanic. And the most expensive movie of all time: the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra, in 1963. As for that year-end $10 billion domestic box-office record, consider that it came from selling about 1.4 billion tickets. In 1946, when the U.S. population was less than half what it is now, Americans went to the movies 4 billion times.