Timeline for the highest-grossing films in history: The past 100 years

Timeline of the highest-grossing film record
Established Title Record

Beginning in 1915 thru 1940-The Birth of a Nation

1940 thru 1966-Gone with the Wind

1966 – 1971-The Sound of Music

1971-Gone with the Wind

1972-1976-The Godfather


1978-1983 –Star Wars

1983-1993 – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

1993-1998-Jurassic Park


**Timeline for 1st 100 years of film:
For 25 years, 1915-1940, “Birth of a Nation” was the highest grossing film.
From 1940-66-and again in 1971, “Gone with the Wind” was in the top spot. “Gone with the Wind” still holds the record for being the highest grossing film of all time for the longest period of time…over 25 years. And it also re-gained the title in its re-release early in the seventies!
From 1915 through 1966, the highest-grossing films were both about the Civil War and its aftermath. One had the Klansmen as heroes, and the second was made with African-Americans depicted as slaves or servants.
The Sound of Music, the only musical to hold the top spot-was the highest grossing film from 1966-1971. Although made in the waning days of the musical, it spent five years in the top spot. Robert Wise, the director, was partially responsible. The beautiful location shots coupled with one of the most memorable screen openings in the history of cinema helped make this one stick. Julie Andrews voice and the memorable songs also made a difference.
The Godfather, one of the greatest films of all time according to many critics lists, was in the top spot from 1972 thru 1976. The Godfather, which I recently wrote about in the post “About the Great Gatsby…” is arguably THE Great American Film (as opposed to The Great Gatsby as the Great American Novel). The book was great, but in a rare turn of events, the film was even better.
It was displaced by “Jaws”, another impressive early film from Steven Spielberg, which held the top spot for just two years, from 1978 through 1978.. Jaws was an anomaly, as it was a big budget film, without major stars and it told a story that was part thriller, part horror movie, part fantasy. But it had that wonderful score by John Williams and it was directed so skillfully that you really were afraid of a shark attack upon leaving the theater!
Then came “Star Wars”, from George Lucas. The phenomenon that was Star Wars has been well documented. In my book, Six Degrees of Film, the last chapter deals with the story of George Lucas, and his multi-talented Industrial Light & Magic crew. ILM turned the film industry on its head in regard to their cutting-edge use of special effects. They literally took some old, used equipment from the fifties (Anybody remember VistaVision?) and re-invented the special effects department by introducing the world to the digital age of film. The original Star Wars film held the top spot for five years, from 1978-1982.

“ET, the Extra-Terrestrial”, from Spielberg, was really a children’s movie. It was a fantasy and a science-fiction film, and it had huge appeal for both young and old. It took the spot in ’82 and held it for an impressive 10 years. Although I was never personally a huge fan of this film, the director Steven Spielberg, was able to touch the right chord between fantasy and reality to create a touchingly vulnerable alien that people fell in love with.
In 1993, Spielberg knocked himself off the pedestal for first place with “Jurassic Park”, another sci-fi classic. This one was helped along by ILM, the same crew that created the Star Wars special effects in the late seventies. But by this time, they had perfected the art of digitalized shots and there was so much more they could do! (Also documented in Six Degrees of Film) The animators had a field day as they created this life-like dinosaurs that were demanded by Spielberg. What they came up with was so realistic, even he had to acknowledge they had surpassed his powerful imagination!
Jurassic Park held the spot for five years, from 1993 through 1998, losing the highest grossing title to “Titanic”, a film from James Cameron.
Based on the true historical story of the sinking of the Titanic, this was a romantic love story starring a hot new leading man named Leonardo DiCaprio. Titanic held the # 1 spot for an impressive 12 years. And again, it was knocked from its perch by the same director, James Cameron.
In 2010, “Avatar” became the highest-grossing film of all time. It was a sci-fi fantasy with few big name leads. Most of the action was centered on the race of blue people who were being displaced by the U. S. Army. A complete turn-around from a century before, this film spoke of the need for racial intolerance, inclusion, and it had an environmental message that caused some controversy during the initial distribution.
But the main attraction in Avatar was again, the special effects. And you would be correct in surmising that some of the original Industrial Light & Magic team was brought in to achieve the special effects advancements seen in this film. James Cameron had a vision for a unique look and quality to the animation, really making it come to life. This is the only film that was specifically made in 3-D that took the top spot. Cameron took years developing the right look and cinematography to create the images he wanted. His gamble paid off, as this was the first film to gross more than $2 billion dollars world-wide.
What can we take away when we look at the content and the composition of these films?
In the formative years of a very new industry, many of the films looked to the past for their content and development. As Marshall McCluhan said, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
From 100 years earlier, there was a film about the glories of the Klansmen and then a very nostalgic look at the Civil War- Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. These films dominated the first half of the twentieth century. And now we have arrived in a new century. The films are now global in nature and speak of a newer, younger audience that is not mired in the past.
Audiences look for positive messages of inclusion and yet, are still suckers for a good love story. That seems to be the message from the highest grossing films. Good writing, original stories and cutting edge special effects have always sold tickets and continue to be the wave of the future.
James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are still making movies. But chances are there is a new generation waiting to knock these legendary directors off of the pedestal. These young directors may have conceived their idea or it may still be floating around in their head. There may be a young woman out there who is waiting. And he or she may or may not be an American Citizen. We can only speculate. However, there is one thing we do know.
When it comes to film, it is much like the monarchy. We live to see another generation of film royalty and metaphorically say, “The King is Dead. Long Live the King (or Queen!)”

Scroll to Top