I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the top 10 grossing films from various years throughout history and see what trends I could discover. For recent years, I have tried to use worldwide grosses, but only the domestic totals seem to be easily available for earlier years.
One of the most dramatic trends that I noticed was the massive increase in the popularity of science fiction and fantasy films. For example, let's look at 2013. Out of the top ten worldwide grossing movies that year, 8 of them were either SF or fantasy. One of the remaining two is Gravity, which is considered by some to be science fiction, even though it probably shouldn't be, as nothing really happens that is beyond our current level of technology.
The other one is an action film, Fast and Furious 6.
In 2012 we see a similar trend. 7 of the top 10 were speculative fiction. Two others were animated films about talking animals, which I guess are basically fantasy films anyway. The only one left is a James Bond movie, and entries in that series have sometimes skirted the edge of the science fiction genre.
For comparison, take a look at 1987. Out of the top 10 grossers that year, none of them were SF, and only 1, The Witches of Eastwick, fell into the fantasy genre.
Maybe that was just an anomaly. How about 1977, a year often thought of as being a landmark one for SF, mainly due to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, those were the only two sci-fi flicks in the United States top 10 and there were no fantasy films.
1978 is similar. The only US top ten film that year that would really be considered science fiction is Superman. We do have a zombie flick in Dawn of the Dead and a comedy with a supernatural bent in Heaven Can Wait. But really those two are just a horror film and a comedy.
In 1979, there were actually 3 SF movies in the top ten: Alien, Moonraker, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We also have a supernatural themed horror film in The Amityville Horror.
Moving on to the next decade... in 1980 there was only one film in the top ten that was speculative fiction, The Empire Strikes Back. Fast forward a few years to 1983 and we see no fantasy films and only two SF. Again one was a Star Wars installment and the other was WarGames. In 1985, there was only one top grossing science fiction movie, Back to the Future. In 1988, the were no SF films and only 2 fantasy films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Beetlejuice.
As we can see the 1970s and 1980s had some iconic science fiction and were the beginning of sci-fi being a mainstream film genre. But it was still in the minority and the top earners often included realistic dramas and comedies, musicals and other genres.
What about the 1990s? Seems like a likely time period for the change to science fiction and fantasy to start.
Let's check out 1990's top films in the United States, There were four that are in the speculative fiction umbrella. We have Total Recall, based off a Philip K. Dick novel, and Back to the Future Part III, which are both firmly in the realm of science fiction. There's also Ghost, which is sort of a fantasy film and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which has to technically be science fiction or fantasy, I'm not really sure which!
1991 had only one science fiction top 10 film in Terminator 2. There were also two fantasy films in Beauty and the Beast and Hook. 1992 had no science fiction films, but some fantastical ones in Aladdin, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Batman Returns. Looks like we are seeing an increase in these type of movies, but still far from the dominance of the current era.
Let's skip forward to 1996. Surprisingly, only one film is either SF or fantasy, the top money maker of the year, Independence Day. 1997 had 3 science fiction films and none in the fantasy genre. 1998 had 2 SF movies, Godzilla and Armageddon, and neither of them are really typical of the genre.
Even in 1999, another landmark year for science fiction, only 2 of the top 10 are SF (The Phantom Menace and The Matrix), in addition to a fantasy film (The Mummy) and a supernatural horror (The Sixth Sense).
2001 was a similarly big year for fantasy. The biggest was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and number two was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The top 4 also included animated fantasy films Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, and Planet of the Apes were in the top ten, bringing the total of speculative fiction films to 7. This appears to be the first year where most of the top grossing movies were either SF or fantasy.
This trend continued in 2002. Out of the top 10, we again see 7 films in these genres, plus one CGI talking animal film. Since 2001, the highest grossing film every year has been sci-fi or fantasy. The only possible exception was 2008's The Dark Knight, but that is a superhero comic book adaptation, so for the purposes of our discussion it is probably close enough.
Clearly, the domination of these types of films at the box office began in the early 2000s and hasn't let up since. This makes sense as the late 1990s saw many huge SF movies, like the previously mentioned The Matrix, Independence Day, and The Phantom Menace. The late 1990s and early 2000s also saw the rise of the superhero genre, largely because of X-Men (2000) and Spiderman (2002).
In case you were wondering, the comparison is even more dramatic when looking at earlier decades. In 1939 there was no science fiction in the top 10 and only one fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz.
In the years 1949 and 1955 there were no top 10 movies in these categories. In 1959, there was Sleeping Beauty, which is a fantasy film and Ben-Hur, the biblical epic, which technically is a fantasy movie, if you think about it.
In the next decade, you can see that 1962, 1965, 1967, and 1969 all contained no fantasy or science fiction in the American top ten grossing movies.
This ended up being a big longer than I expected, so other trends I have discovered will be explored in future blog posts.
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