The highest-grossing movies of the 80s brought in big bucks for studios and producers. The 1980s were a great time to be in the movie business, and the blockbuster hits gave birth to the ‘sequel renaissance.’
Wondering which of your favorites performed the best? We put together a list of the 21 highest-grossing movies of the 80s
Table of Contents
- 1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- 2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
- 3. Batman (1989)
- 4. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- 5. Back to the Future (1985)
- 6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
- 7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
- 8. Rain Man (1988)
- 9. Top Gun (1986)
- 10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
- 11. Back to the Future II (1989)
- 12. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
- 13. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
- 14. Fatal Attraction (1987)
- 15. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
- 16. Rocky IV (1985)
- 17. Rambo: First Blood Part II
- 18. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
- 19. Look Who’s Talking (1989)
- 20. Coming to America (1988)
- 21. Ghostbusters (1984)
1. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the culmination of a series of hits for director Steven Spielberg – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark – all were huge hits that helped establish the concept of the modern-day blockbuster and event picture. But, of all those films, E.T. was the biggest and would be the biggest movie of the decade. Universal was thrilled with a global box office of $663 million against a budget of only $10 million.
E.T. did almost equal business domestically ($359 million) and overseas ($304 million). The story of a marooned alien who forms a bond with a young boy in his quest to go home proved to have universal appeal.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestria is the highest-grossing movie of the 80s
2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
The third and what should have been the final Indiana Jones story, saw Jones once again taking on Nazis, this time in pursuit of the Holy Grail. Paramount’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had a substantially bigger budget than the first two films in the series costing $48 million. But, it was also the generated bigger box office numbers than the first two films, bringing in more than $474 million globally. Although its domestic tally of $197 million was less than Raiders of the Lost Ark, it more than made up for it by bringing in $277 million internationally. Not only was it one of the highest-grossing movies of the 80s, but also one of the most profitable.
3. Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s Batman ushered in the modern-notion of the superhero blockbuster. Starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and featuring original songs by Prince, Warner Bros. Batman was a huge hit that foreshadowed the dominance superhero films would have over the modern box office. Batman was an expensive movie for its day with a $35 million budget, but it paid off with a global box office of $411 million, with $251 million domestically and $160 million internationally.
4. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The second film in the original Star Wars trilogy was a massive success for 20th Century Fox – which was not surprising given that it was a sequel to the biggest movie of the 1970s. However, Empire Strikes Back also was a terrific film that continued and expanded the story of Star Wars – unlike many sequels in the 1980s that simply provided more of the same. Empire Strikes Back expanded on the idea of what the force meant, left Han Solo’s fate unknown, and ended on a fairly melancholy note.
It is now widely considered the best film in the series. Audiences responded with $400 million worldwide ticket sales against a budget of $18 million. It generated $209 million domestically and $190 million overseas. Subsequent rereleases have boosted those numbers.
5. Back to the Future (1985)
The Robert Zemeckis time travel classic solidified Michael J. Fox as a bonafide star. Universal’s Back to the Future, a film about a high schooler who goes back in time, meets his parents, and turns them from losers into winners, was an instant hit. It grossed $381 million worldwide against a budget of $19 million. It brought in $210 million domestically and $170 million overseas. These powerful returns make Back to the Future one of the highest-grossing movies of the 80s.
6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
We live in an era where the Star Wars brand has sunken to the point that the “conclusion of the Skywalker saga” is out grossed globally by a mediocre Marvel film like Captain Marvel. So it can be easy to forget just how big of a cultural touchstone the original Star Wars trilogy was when it hit theaters in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There really had never been anything quite like it.
20th Centruy Fox’s Return of the Jedi was the final entrant and, based on the quality of the first two films, did big business, bringing in $374 million globally against a budget of $32.5 million (not counting rereleases). It generated $252 million domestically and $122 million internationally.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas owned the box office in the late 1970s and 1980s. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, they teamed up and delivered one of the biggest films of the decade for Paramount. The action-adventure, inspired by 1950s cliffhangers, captured the imagination of audiences and established Harrison Ford as a box office force outside of the Star Wars universe. The film initially generated $353 million globally against an $18 million budget. It brought in $212 million domestically and $141 million internationally. Rereleases have since boosted those numbers even higher.
8. Rain Man (1988)
On a list dominated by film series and sequels, MGM’s Rain Man stands out as something different. The touching story of a shallow, superficial scammer who learns he has an autistic brother and develops a true bond with him, connected with audiences. Driven by terrific performances by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, it grossed $354 million worldwide against a budget of $25 million. It brought in $172 million domestically and $182 million internationally, on its way to the best picture Oscar win.
9. Top Gun (1986)
Tom Cruise already was a star when he made Top Gun for Paramount, but the film catapulted him to another level. The story of a troubled but talented hotshot fighter pilot earned $353 million worldwide. The film was a hit domestically and internationally, bringing in $176 million and $177 million, respectively.
10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
The follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark found Indiana Jones searching for a mystical stone in India to help local villages rescue their children. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a bit darker than the first film in the series, but still featured the action and adventure filmgoers desired. It grossed $333 million globally for Paramount, including $179 million domestically and $153 million internationally.
11. Back to the Future II (1989)
The Back to the Future sequel reunited director Robert Zemeckis and film stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Back to the Future II picked up where the first film ended, and they travel into the future ostensibly to help Marty McFly’s children. The film generated $331 million worldwide against a $40 million budget for Universal. It generated $118 million domestically and $213 million overseas.
12. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Another Robert Zemeckis directed film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? generated considerable buzz upon its release. The film, a hybrid of live-action and animation, exists in a world where cartoon characters work in 1947 Hollywood. The film’s plot focuses on a comedy murder mystery involving the framing of Roger Rabbit for the murder of an executive.
At the time, the film was the most expensive animated film ever made with a budget of more than $70 million. The film brought in more than $329 million globally for Walt Disney, including $156 million domestically and $173 million internationally.
13. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
Crocodile Dundee, the fish-out-of-water comedy, was part of the 1980s Australia fad that swept the U.S. Foster’s Beer commercials. Australian tourism commercials. The craze even was parodied in 1995 when The Simpson’s went to Australia. It was in this 1980s cultural environment that Paramount’s Crocodile Dundee became one of the biggest films of the decade. A New York journalist travels to the Australian outback, and comedy ensues. Then, Crocodile Dundee travels to New York, and more comedy ensues! Actor Paul Hogan laughed all the way to the bank as the film brought in $328 million globally – $174 million domestically and $153 million internationally.
14. Fatal Attraction (1987)
Fatal Attraction, the story of a happy husband who has a weekend fling only to face horrendous consequences, struck a chord with audiences. The message was clear: If you cheat on your wife, a bunny might get boiled alive in your kitchen. Michael Douglas and Glenn Close deliver powerful performances – including some steamy elevator sex. The film might be the best of its kind and has inspired numerous imitators. It grossed $320 million worldwide for Paramount, with $156 million domestically and $163 million overseas.
15. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
It’s a testament to Eddie Murphy’s star power in the 1980s that Beverly Hills Cop makes this list. It’s an OK comedy-action film that has a Detroit police officer traveling to hoity-toity Beverly Hills. But, Murphy, fresh off of 48 Hrs. and Trading Places (two much better films) was box office gold at this point for Paramount. Beverly Hills Cop was a huge hit bringing in $316 million globally with the bulk of it – $234 million – coming from U.S. audiences.
16. Rocky IV (1985)
The fourth film in the Rocky series, Rocky IV finds a great foil for Rocky in the immense Ivan Drago. Sylvester Stallone milks the Cold War-era tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union, drenching the film in flag-waving patriotism. The movie also cranks up the traditional Rocky montages quite a bit. The movie continued the Rocky series’ box office dominance, bringing in $300 million globally for United Artists, including $127 million domestically and $172 million internationally.
17. Rambo: First Blood Part II
Rambo: First Blood Part II, a sequel to the much more measured First Blood, has Rambo rescuing American POWs in Vietnam. The film played into an actual theory particularly popular in the 1980s – that when the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, it left behind numerous prisoners of war who were listed as missing in action. The action film contributed to this belief, leading to a two-year congressional investigation that found no compelling evidence any U.S. POWs were still being held in Southeast Asia.
Rambo: First Blood Part II also came out when Sylvester Stallone’s box office power was at its height. The film grossed $300 million for TriStar Pictures – splitting its box office between the U.S. ($150 million) and internationally ($149 million).
18. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
Did you know that sequels became a thing in the 1980s? Some, like Empire Strikes Back, continued and expanded a story. Others not so much. Beverly Hills Cop II is a retread of the first film, and not in a good way. It received mixed reviews – with Roger Ebert’s one-star review probably being the harshest: “Murphy’s idea of a comic scene in this movie is to shout endlessly at people in a shrill, angry voice.” The film once again has Detroit police officer Axel Foley arriving in Beverly Hills to help solve a crime. The film grossed nearly $300 million for Paramount, with $153 million domestically and $146 million internationally.
19. Look Who’s Talking (1989)
Look Who’s Talking’s premise captured the public’s imagination and went all the way to the bank. The idea is simple enough, take a baby and have Bruce Willis do voiceover of what the baby is thinking as Kirstie Alley and John Travolta fumble about. Few could have foreseen just how taken the public would be with this idea. The film became one of the biggest of the decade, generating $296 million globally for TriStar Pictures, including $140 million domestically and about $156 million internationally.
20. Coming to America (1988)
Paramount’s Coming to America, an amusing Eddie Murphy vehicle about an African prince who comes to America, was a modest U.S. hit, but more than made up for that internationally. The film is an OK comedy and, once again, serves as a reminder to Murphy’s box office star power in the 1980s. Coming to America brought in $288 million – $128 million domestically and $160 million internationally.
21. Ghostbusters (1984)
Columbia’s Ghostbusters seems low on this list, but that’s only because of its somewhat paltry box office internationally. In terms of domestic hits, Ghostbusters would place in the top five on this list. The story of three schlubs who use science to battle ghosts uniquely blended special effects, action, and comedy. The movie became a phenomenon and has achieved an iconic status. So much so, studios continue to try to recapture the magic of this film with sequels and reboots.
Ghostbusters brought in $282 million globally against a $30 million budget. The bulk of its box office ($229 million) came from U.S. audiences. Over the years, rereleases have helped boost those numbers.