The highest-grossing movies of the 70s include some of the most memorable films in history. The 1970s were an interesting time in the film industry. The decade would establish the modern notion of the blockbuster. Early in the 1970s, films were released on a small number of screens and then rolled out nationally. By the end of the decade, the “event” picture would change how Hollywood made and marketed films.
We put together a list of the 21 highest-grossing movies of the 70s
Table of Contents
- 1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
- 2. Jaws (1975)
- 3. Grease (1978)
- 4. The Exorcist (1973)
- 5. Superman: The Movie (1978)
- 6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- 7. The Godfather (1972)
- 8. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
- 9. Rocky (1976)
- 10. Moonraker (1979)
- 11. Jaws 2 (1978)
- 12. The Sting (1973)
- 13. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
- 14. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
- 15. Blazing Saddles (1974)
- 16. The Towering Inferno (1974)
- 17. American Graffiti (1973)
- 18. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- 19. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
- 20. Love Story (1970)
- 21. Airport (1970)
1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars helped define the idea of a big Hollywood blockbuster. Its performance at the box office helped redefine how films were released. The story of Luke Skywalker taking on Darth Vader and the Death Star featured groundbreaking special effects and became a cultural phenomenon. Written and directed by George Lucas, the film grossed $503 million in its initial release for 20th Century Fox.
Over the years, the film has been tweaked with updated special effects and rereleased, many of the changes, such as Han Solo shooting Greedo in self-defense and added CGI effects, have been received negatively. In fact, the original 1977 film is now nearly impossible to find.
Gross: $503 Million
This makes Star Wars: A New Hope the highest-grossing movie of the 1970s
2. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s first true blockbuster, Jaws, set the stage for the cultural tsunami that would follow with Star Wars. Based on a novel by Peter Benchley, the film about a shark that terrorizes a New England beach community was a sensation upon its release. Jaws helped establish many of the tactics that have led the “event picture.” It’s impact and success, led to the establishment of the modern-day blockbuster. Jaws was one of the first films to be heavily advertised on TV, and it opened on 465 theaters.
At the time, this was considered a huge number. By comparison Avengers: Endgame, opened on 4,600 screens. Jaws became the highest-grossing movie ever in 78 days of release, bringing in $470 million globally in 1975. Jaws changed the way movies are marketed and released.
Gross: $470 Million
3. Grease (1978)
Grease, based on the hit romantic-comedy musical of the same name, was the biggest film of 1978 and starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The story of how troublesome Danny Zuko and goody-goody Sandy Olson fall in love was a hit with audiences. The film features a soundtrack that remains popular even today (who hasn’t heard a Grease song played at a bar?). The movie brought in $366 million worldwide for Paramount with $159 million in domestic ticket sales, making it one of the top 3 highest-grossing movies of the 70s.
Gross: $365 Million
4. The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is considered one of the greatest films ever made and a horror classic. The film tells the tale of a little girl possessed by a malevolent spirit and attempts to help her. Although modern audiences might find it tame by today’s horror standards, in its day, The Exorcist’s intense enough that some filmgoers had a tough time getting through it. The movie grossed more than $329 million for Warner Bros.
Gross: $329 Million
5. Superman: The Movie (1978)
Richard Donner’s Superman laid the foundation for the modern-day superhero blockbuster. It was the first superhero film to approach storytelling in a more serious, less campy style. An entertaining adventure with Christopher Reeves as the perfect Superman, the film grossed $300 million globally for Warner Bros., with $134 million coming domestically. Donner’s style, however, led to conflicts with the film’s producers.
Donner filmed Superman and Superman II simultaneously, so when the first film finished, the second was 80 percent shot. Still, the producers fired Donner, hired a new director, and reshot many of the scenes. In 2006, much of the original Donner version of Superman II was put together and released as “Superman II: The Donner Cut.”
Gross: $300 Million
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Following the success of Jaws, Steven Spielberg had a fair amount of freedom to pursue projects. The story he came up with would be another blockbuster. It tells the story of alien encounters and imagines what the first contact between human beings and aliens might be like. The film reflects Spielberg’s optimistic view about life on other planets, as opposed to typical Hollywood treatment reflected in movies like Independence Day (It’s a theme he would revisit with E.T.). The movie grossed $288 million worldwide for Columbia, with domestic ticket sales of $116 million.
Gross: $288 Million
7. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather is considered one of the greatest films ever made and redefined crime films and specifically mob movies. The movie launched the careers of Al Pacino and director Francis Ford Coppola. Its influence and legacy are scattered throughout the entertainment landscape, from Goodfellas to The Sopranos to every crime and mob drama in between. The movie grossed about $243 million for Universal, including $133 million domestically.
Gross: $243 Million
8. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Saturday Night Fever became a cultural phenomenon, helping to launch the disco craze and turning John Travolta into a star. The story of a bunch of friends from Brooklyn who hang out at a disco is grittier than one would expect. Travolta’s character falls for a girl with dreams of moving to Manhattan and improving her life. The film’s success was driven in large part by its soundtrack by the Bee Gees, which stayed on the Billboard charts for 120 weeks and was number one for 18 weeks. The movie brought in $237 million worldwide for Paramount, with $94 million in domestic ticket sales.
Gross: $237 Million
9. Rocky (1976)
Rocky was a huge box office hit, but it also was critically acclaimed. People forget, thanks to numerous sequels that became very formulaic, that the first film won several Oscars, including Best Picture. In the film, upstart boxer Rocky Balboa who gets an unexpected shot at the title. But the movie also is a character study that follows his relationship with painfully shy Adrian. Rocky spawned one of the most successful film franchises in history while earning more than $225 million globally for United Artists, including $117 million in domestic ticket sales.
Gross: $225 Million
10. Moonraker (1979)
One of the most popular James Bond films of all-time is also probably one of the worse. But hey, Star Wars had been super popular a couple of years earlier, so why not put James Bond in space? The film also includes favorite Bond henchman, Jaws. The plot involves a secret space station that is going to be used to destroy human life on Earth. Despite its lackluster legacy, audiences flocked to Moonraker. It was the biggest movie of 1979, bringing in $210 million globally for MGM, with domestic ticket sales topping $70 million.
Gross: $210 Million
11. Jaws 2 (1978)
The mediocre follow-up to 1975’s Jaws, the film is the final one in the series to feature Roy Scheider as Chief Brody. It’s also the final film to really be taken seriously. Jaws 3 used 3D as a gimmick that failed. Jaws: The Revenge was one of the worst films of the 1980s. However, Jaws 2 was a competent follow-up. The shark once again terrorizes a New England town. The climax, this time, is when a bunch of teenagers go boating and find themselves stalked by the shark. Jaws 2 was the third-highest-grossing film of 1978 (finishing behind Grease and Superman: The Movie), bringing in $183 million globally for Universal, including $77 million domestically.
Gross: $183 Million
12. The Sting (1973)
The Sting paired two of the biggest stars of the day, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, as a pair of con artists who join forces to pull off a big scam. The film came just four years after Newman and Redford teamed up in the successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film was a hit with audiences and critics, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture. It went on to earn $156 million for Universal.
Gross: $156 Million
13. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
National Lampoon’s Animal House established the gross-out comedy genre. The story of an out-of-control fraternity taking on the university establishment set the stage for many future comedies. The film’s influence can be seen in films like Old School, American Pie, Caddyshack, and The Hangover. It helped establish John Belushi as a film star and launched the career of comedy director John Landis. The two would connect again a couple of years later on The Blues Brothers. Animal House would gross $141 million for Universal.
Gross: $141 Million
14. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Smokey and the Bandit is just one example of the Burt Reynolds-in-fast-cars genre of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s also by far the best of them. Reynolds and Sally Field enjoyed great onscreen chemistry (after meeting on the set they dated for five years). In the film, Reynolds and his pal have to drive from Atlanta to Texarkana, pick up Coors beer and make it back to Atlanta in 28 hours. In 1977, such an act would have been considered bootlegging and was illegal.
Along the way, they pick up a runaway bride who was about to marry the son of the local sheriff. The sheriff then gives chase across the entire country. The film was silly fun, and audiences ate it up. It grossed $126 million for Universal.
Gross: $126 Million
15. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Mel Brooks’ parody of westerns was one of the biggest films of 1974. The movie takes a basic plot of westerns – the railroad needs to go through a town, and thugs arrive to drive the town folk out. To ensure failure, the governor sends an African-American sheriff to the town, figuring the racist locals will turn on him and flee. The film could easily be viewed as offensive by some in 2020, but the humor comes at the expense of the racists, not the sheriff. The film grossed $119 million for Warner Bros.
Gross: $119 Million
16. The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Towering Inferno might be the best of the 1970s disaster flicks. Paul Newman plays an architect whose new building is opening, except decisions to cut costs leads to faulty wiring and a horrible fire. Newman leads an ensemble cast that also includes Steve McQueen and William Holden. The film generated $116 million at the box office for 20th Century Fox.
Gross: $116 Million
17. American Graffiti (1973)
Before George Lucas made Star Wars, he made the quintessential Baby Boomer coming of age story. An ensemble cast that included Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, and Richard Dreyfuss enjoy the final night of their high school lives. The film has a slice of life and episodic structure that was beloved by audiences for its nostalgic look at life in the early 1960s. The film cruised its way to a box office of $116 million for Universal.
Gross: $116 Million
18. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an adaptation of the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name, follows the story of petty criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, is not insane but figures a mental institution is as good a place as any to serve his time. He is wrong and becomes embroiled in a battle of wills with the nurse overseeing the ward. Critically acclaimed upon its release, Nicholson won the Oscar for best actor, and it was named Best Picture. The film generated $108 million at the box office for United Artists.
Gross: $108 Million
19. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman star as divorcing parents who end up in a custody dispute in Kramer vs. Kramer. The effective drama won Best Picture. The film was notable for exploring issues of divorce, gender roles, father’s rights, and single parents. The performances of Streep and Hoffman were central to the film’s success, and each won Oscars. The film grossed $106 million for Columbia Pictures.
Gross: $106 Million
20. Love Story (1970)
Love Story tells the tragic romance that begins after a couple meets in college. The film starred Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw as the young couple who love each other but ultimately are not destined to be together. A classic tearjerker, the film grossed $106 million for Paramount Pictures.
Gross: $106 Million
21. Airport (1970)
Another 1970s-era disaster movie, Airport had an ensemble cast led by Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. The film takes place at an airport suffering through a terrible snowstorm and a series of crises. The movie is most remembered today for spawning three sequels, and the parody Airplane! in 1980. Airport grossed over $100 million for Universal.