Science fiction movies are not just for nerds anymore. In fact, these films can be big money makers at the box office. If you include the sub-genres of fantasy and comic book-inspired movies, science fiction as a genre dominates the top grossing movies. Not only do they make money, but these movies have also received critical acclaim and scored wins at the Oscars and Golden Globe Awards, among others. Science fiction as a genre deals with imaginative content that is based on, to some degree, actual science. Topics like time travel, monsters, superheroes, intergalactic space travel, computers and robots, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrials are all fodder for science fiction.
The very first sci-fi movie dates back to the early days of cinema. A silent film inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, "Le Voyage dans la Lune," was filmed by French movie pioneer Georges Méliès in 1902. It's famous for its depiction of a rocket ship being launched to the moon and lodging itself in the man in the moon's eye. Today, sci-fi movies are summer blockbusters employing the very best talent and cutting edge filmmaking technologies.
Big budget science fiction movies can be extremely expensive to make (more than $100 million per film), but when successful, these investments can produce outsized profits, returning multiples of the original cost to its producers and investors. Of course, not all sci-fi movies are money makers at the box office, but here is a list of the top grossing science fiction movies of all time, and how much profit they've returned.
The 40 Top Grossing Sci-Fi Films of All Time
The list below shows the 40 top grossing sci-fi movies of all time (not adjusted for inflation). The sci-fi film with the highest gross profit is "Avatar" (2009), with nearly $3 billion in revenue. When adjusting for inflation, science fiction films hold three of the top ten highest grossing films of all time. (The number one inflation-adjusted movie is "Gone With the Wind" (1939), followed by "Avatar".) The movie with the single highest return on investment is the classic "E.T." (1982), making a profit of more than 75x the money it cost to make the film. (See also: The Economics of Summer Blockbuster Movies.)
It is interesting to note that the majority of the top grossing films in the genre were made in the past ten years. Films adapted from comic books were also very successful, and just two of the films on the list are animated ("Wall-E" and "Big Hero 6"). Another notable trend is that many sequels have done better at the box office than the originals, countering the popular belief that sequels tend to do worse that the original films they follow.
Budget ($ Millions)
Gross Sales Worldwide Box Office ($ Millions)
|Avengers: Age of Ultron||2015||$280||$1,348 *||418.4%|
|Iron Man 3||2013||$200||$1,215||607.5%|
|Transformers: Dark of the Moon||2011||$195||$1,124||576.4%|
|Transformers: Age of Extinction||2014||$100||$1,104||1104%|
|Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace||1999||$115||$1,027||893%|
|The Hunger Games: Catching Fire||2013||$135||$865||640.7%|
|Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith||2005||$113||$849||751.3%|
|Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen||2009||$200||$836||418%|
|E.T. The Extraterrestrial||1982||$10.5||$793||7552.4%|
|Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope||1977||$11||$776||7054.5%|
|Guardians of the Galaxy||2014||$196||$774||395%|
|The Matrix Reloaded||2003||$150||$742||494.7%|
|Dawn of the Planet of the Apes||2014||$170||$709||417.1%|
|The Hunger Games||2012||$78||$691||885.9%|
|Superman: Man of Steel||2013||$225||$668||296.9%|
|Big Hero 6||2014||$165||$652||319.2%|
|Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones||2002||$115||$649||564.3%|
|Iron Man 2||2010||$200||$624||312%|
|Jurassic Park: The Lost World||1997||$73||$619||847.9%|
|War of the Worlds||2005||$132||$592||448.5%|
|Men In Black||1997||$90||$589||654.4%|
|I Am Legend||2007||$150||$585||390%|
|Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi||1983||$43||$573||1332.6%|
|World War Z||2013||$190||$540||284.2%|
|Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back||1980||$33||$538||1630.3%|
|Terminator 2: Judgment Day||1991||$102||$520||509.8%|
Source: IMDB, data as of Jun 8, 2015. Numbers are not inflation adjusted. * indicates still showing in theaters
Investing in Sci-Fi Blockbusters
Offering up the potential for high returns, some investors may seek to put some of their money to work by investing in movies. Direct investment usually requires becoming a producer. Indirect investment can involve bonds issued by the movie's makers, or through specialized private investment funds that specialize in this niche. These direct investments can be highly risky and illiquid. Proper due diligence is necessary to minimize the risk of experiencing large losses. (For more, see: How to Invest in Movies.)
Film futures is another way to profit from a movie's box office gross. These are over-the-counter derivatives products that do not actually make investments in the movie, but merely bet on the outcome. These products are not available to every investor and also carry the risk of losing the entire amount placed on a bet. (See also: Invest in Hollywood With the Film Futures Market.)
A less risky way to gain exposure is by investing in public companies involved in the production and distribution of these movies. Lions Gate Films (LGF) is up more than 10% year to date, Disney (DIS) is up 16.7%, and Dreamworks Animation SKG (DWA) is up more than 25% over the same period. Shares of IMAX (IMAX), the large-format immersive movie experience used for many sci-fi movies these days, is up 32%. Not all movie studio stocks are up this year, however: 20th Century Fox (FOXA) is down 14% year to date, and Viacom (VIAB) is down nearly 11%.
The Bottom Line
Science fiction movies have become a dominant genre in Hollywood. Once reserved for nerds, sci-fi is now mainstream and making billions of dollars in revenue worldwide, annually. These films cost many millions of dollars to produce, but successful ones can return multiples of the original investment. Direct investment in a single movie is a high risk, illiquid alternative investment that is unsuitable for the average investor. Film futures markets exist for people to take bets on how much a movie will make when it comes out, and an investor can also buy shares of movie studios and distributors whose shares trade on public exchanges.