Below is a list of the Hollywood movies that have box-office grosses
of over $250 million as reported on the www site of the
There are other films that have just missed the $250 million criteria, but which can certainly be considered megahit movies. Films in this group include Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban ($249 million), Toy Story 2 ($245 million), Raiders of the Lost Ark ($242 million), Bruce Almighty ($242 million), Twister ($240 million), and Ghostbusters ($238 million). Scenes from these films will also be discussed in The Megahit Movies book if they exemplify a particularly important cinematic technique. For example, we will discuss the opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which will illustrate the importance of using obstacles to create jeopardy for the protagonist. But for the most part, our analysis will be restricted to those films that have generated over a quarter of a billion dollars in box-office revenue.
Over 2000 years ago Aristotle (384-322 BC), the famous Greek Philosopher, wrote Poetics, a book in which he presented a theory of dramatic structure. He developed this theory by analyzing the successful dramas of Greek culture: the stage plays of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Aristotle systematically studied the most popular works of drama that existed during his lifetime. From that research he then abstracted principles of dramatic structure which he presented in the Poetics.
But much has changed in the mediums of story presentation during the past two thousand years. The film, video or motion picture medium, which did not exist in Aristotle's lifetime, is now the dominant presentation mode for drama and comedy. In The Megahit Movies, we will continue within the research tradition established by Aristotle, and use empirical methods to develop a new theory of dramatic structure. We will do this by studying the forms and constructs existing in the most successful and popular stories that currently exist in the motion picture medium.
A few of the megahit movies in the above list are sequels, such as Return of the Jedi, Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace. It can be argued that these films are successful because there already existed an audience for the characters introduced in the originals. Our main concern is with the megahit films for which a built-in audience did not exist. What is it about the experience of viewing the original films that caused domestic theater patrons to pay over $250 million?
The enormous ticket sales of an original film with new characters is usually generated by "word-of-mouth" recommendations and repeat attendance by the initial audience. A film can only become a megahit if members of the audience tell their friends that they must see the film. They also must go back to view the movie not just a second time, but also a third, fourth and fifth time.
Why do members of an audience want to see these movies again and again? When experiencing a movie, an audience sits in a dark room for about two hours. They begin by staring at a blank screen, then experience a series of images and sounds that have an emotional impact on them. What is it about these films that creates a satisfying emotional experience for the audience?
Is there something common to these films in terms of dramatic structure or the human values revealed by the characters under conflict? If so, what are the dramatic structures and human values that compel the audience to recommend these films to friends and to repeatedly watch these movies themselves?
Most of these movies are either fantasy films or action-adventure films with fantastic elements. I use the word "fantastic" to describe the exhibition of extremely imaginative images, or images extraordinarily unreal in conception, design or construction. But not all fantasy films achieve megahit status. Obviously, fantasy elements alone are not sufficient for large box-office grosses. So, what are the essential attributes of a megahit movie?
Since this site will focus on the dramatic and comic structures found in popular films, it will also provide a scene-by-scene analysis of one of the most popular fantasy films of all time: The Wizard of Oz. Although it has not generated as much revenue as the other megaghit films, it is often chosen by opinion polls to be one of the most popular films ever produced. It is beneficial to first study this film in detail because its values and structures are simple and transparent. It will also provide us with an elementary first model of the dramatic structure of a popular movie. Scene-by-scene analyses of some of the other megahits are also available at this site.
One final point should be emphasized about this selection of films. It is notoriously difficult for critics to agree on which films are good, or even to agree on acceptable criteria for application of the word "good" when analyzing films. Aesthetic debates have been taking place among critics and philosophers of art for hundreds of years, and usually degenerate into questions of taste and subjective personal opinion. There are no universally accepted criteria that can be used to judge which films are "good" and which are "bad".
But there is an objective criteria for deciding which films are popular: box office revenues. People vote for these films when they purchase their tickets. They often see these films more than once. These are the films that they want their friends and lovers to experience. Popularity may not be accepted by critics as a legitimate criterion of what is "good", but popularity does clearly delimit a class of films worthy of analysis. They reflect the values and attitudes of the film-viewing public held during a specific historical period.
Some people have argued that if the box office receipts were adjusted for inflation, there would be an entirely different order to the list of popular films. But there is a problem with using this "adjusted" data to construct a hierarchical order of popularity. "Popularity" is not a concept to which you can apply a mathematical function and compute a new ordering that maintains validity.This holds true for the movies. Movies, and the stories that they tell, that were popular in 1939 are usually no longer popular today. The concept of popularity involves values and attitudes of a group of people that change over time. These values and attitudes change not only over generations, but also several times within a generation. To be specific, Gone With The Wind is listed as the movie with the greatest box-office revenues, after adjusted for inflation, on the Mr. Show Biz website. But when Gone With The Wind was re-released in the early 1990s it generated only about $1 million in current box-office revenues. It failed as a movie because the story was no longer popular. Many producers have also tried to get financing to make a movie based on some Hollywood screenwriter's "new sequel" to Gone With The Wind. But they cannot get the project into production because the studio executives know that the story and the characters in the story would not be popular in today's culture and mass market. Therefore, in our analysis of the megahit movies, we will not use an inflation-adjusted list of "biggest box-office hits of all time".
The fundamental question remains: what is it about the megahit movies that makes them so popular? Stated differently, what does an audience feel and experience in a dark theater for about two hours that provides them with an emotionally satisfying experience and makes them enthusiastic about these movies?