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. 

Film Title Year

Budget ($ Millions)

Gross Sales Worldwide Box Office ($ Millions)

Gross Profit


Avatar 2009 $237 $2,788 1176.4%
The Avengers 2012 $220 $1,519 690.5%
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%
Jurassic Park 1993 $63 $1,030 1634.9%
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%
Inception 2010 $160 $826 516.3%
Independence Day 1996 $75 $817 1089.3%
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%
2012 2009 $200 $770 385%
The Matrix Reloaded 2003 $150 $742 494.7%
Gravity 2013 $100 $716 716%
Transformers 2007 $150 $710 473.3%
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 2014 $170 $709 417.1%
The Hunger Games 2012 $78 $691 885.9%
Interstellar 2014 $165 $673 407.9%
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%
Iron Man 2008 $140 $585 417.9%
I Am Legend 2007 $150 $585 390%
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 1983 $43 $573 1332.6%
Armageddon 1998 $140 $554 395.7%
World War Z 2013 $190 $540 284.2%
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 1980 $33 $538 1630.3%
Godzilla 2014 $160 $529 330.6%
Wall-E 2008 $180 $521 289.4%
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.