Some people just can’t win. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, they say. And the same can be said of movies. In particular, we’re talking about the films on this list, which made tons of money at the box office but never reached the top spot. Since we’re talking about bridesmaids, Bridesmaids itself was never “the bride,” never rising above the second spot, but just missed this list at 16th in gross domestic revenue, with $169,106,725.
Which brings us to the one rule here: this list is ranked by domestic box office totals, meaning gross ticket sales in the United States and Canada. Thematically, they’re all over the map, from animated kids’ movies to serious Oscar winners, musicals to disaster movies.
Here they are, the 15 Biggest Movies That Never Reached No. 1 At The Box Office.
15. Chicago ($170,687,518)
The success of 2001’s Moulin Rouge! sparked a bit of a 21st century renaissance when it comes to big screen musicals. The first major musical to follow it was the star-studded take on the Broadway hit Chicago, in 2002. In fact, it was so popular that it raked in $170,687,518 at the box office and took home the Best Picture Oscar. And yet it never quite reached No. 1 at the box office – it peaked at No. 3, about a month after its release.
Part of the explanation was that it was only released to 77 theaters during its first week, at the end of December 2002, and ranked a paltry 12th. At the time, there was a lot of big-budget competition in theaters as well, namely The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day and even Star Trek: Nemesis. As Oscar buzz circled around Chicago, it was released into more and more theaters, up over 2,500 by the time of the Academy Awards, but never enough to get it to No. 1.
14. A Beautiful Mind ($170,708,996)
2001’s A Beautiful Mind was based on the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biographical book of the same name. Director Ron Howard’s film followed John Nash (Russell Crowe), winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Despite never reaching No. 1 at the box office (when it opened wide on January 4, 2002, it reached No. 2), it took in $170,708,996 and won four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Like Chicago, this is one of those movies released in just a handful of theaters late in the year to qualify for the Oscars. It premiered December 21, 2001 in just 11 theaters to rank 16th in its opening weekend box office results. It, too, had Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films to contend with, along with the likes of Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc.
13. Dances with Wolves ($175,293,948)
The oldest movie on this list, Dances with Wolves was released over a quarter century ago, on November 9, 1990, pulling in $175,293,948 and peaking at No. 2 at the box office. This was Kevin Costner’s baby. He co-produced, directed and starred in it as an American Civil War veteran who learns to respect the previously vilified Sioux Indians.
Debuting in just 14 theaters, it ranked 17th in its opening weekend. By its third weekend, it was bumped up to over 1,000 theaters and managed to climb up to No. 3, behind Three Men and a Little Lady’s debut at No. 2, while Home Alone enjoyed its second of 12 straight weeks at No. 1. Macaulay Culkin’s breakout film was such a juggernaut at the time, that even when Dances with Wolves reached No. 2 the weekend of February 1-3, 1991, thanks to growing Oscar buzz, it still only made about $4.8 million compared to Home Alone’s $8.2 million. But it did win the Best Picture Oscar, along with six other Academy Awards.
12. How to Train Your Dragon 2 ($177,002,924)
This 2014 animated sequel was a big success, but couldn’t quite live up to the same numbers as its 2010 predecessor. The original How to Train Your Dragon did reach No. 1 and pulled in $217,581,231 at the box office. Released June 13, 2014, the sequel ran out of steam at No. 2 and made $177,002,924. Jay Baruchel was back to voice the lead human dragon trainer, and while it didn’t beat the original at the box office, it did win the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, while the original film was merely nominated.
So what stopped it from reaching the top of the box office pile? In its first week, it was another sequel, 22 Jump Street, in a very lucrative race where there really were no losers: about $49 million to $57 million. The next week another sequel, Think Like a Man Too, dropped both films down a notch. And in its third weekend, yet another sequel kept How to Train Your Dragon 2 at No. 3: Transformers: Age of Extinction, with its mammoth $100 million haul.
11. Lincoln ($182,207,973)
Here’s yet another “Oscar film” on this list – you know, those intense dramas released late in the year, clearly as Oscar bait. 2012’s Lincoln had all the signs: initial limited release, directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, music by John Williams, and it’s about one of the most respected and iconic figures in American history. For all that, it never reached No. 1, but Day-Lewis won his third Oscar while the film garnered a nomination.
On a production budget of $65 million, Lincoln took home $182,207,973 domestically, but never got higher than No. 3 in the box office rankings. To start, it was released to just 11 theaters on November 9, 2012, ranking 15th, but it opened wide the next weekend to hit that third spot, behind a couple of blockbusters: Skyfall at No. 2 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, which debuted that weekend to earn a ridiculous $141 million.
10. The Day After Tomorrow ($186,740,799)
With a domestic haul of $186,740,799, The Day After Tomorrow holds the distinction of being the highest grossing film to be filmed in Canada. Released in 2004 and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, it’s a disaster film that depicts the drastic effects of climate change that result in a new ice age.
It was released during the always competitive Memorial Day weekend, so it was in tough to debut at No. 1. Shrek 2 did just that the weekend before and it held on to its top spot, with The Day After Tomorrow at No. 2. While the big green ogre brought in $95 million that weekend, this film garnered a very respectable $85 million. With the debut of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban the next week, it dropped to No. 3 and never recovered.
9. Interstellar ($188,017,894)
Interstellar had some serious pedigree when it debuted on November 5, 2014. It was notoriously mind-bending director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy. Matthew McConaughey was riding the wave of a career revitalization brought on by Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street and True Detective. And it was Anne Hathaway’s first major role since winning an Oscar for Les Misérables. So it’s no surprise that it debuted to the tune of $47,510,360 in its opening weekend. And it set a record for its opening weekend at IMAX theaters.
Trouble is, Disney had its own trick up its sleeve that same weekend, and more kids and parents went to see Big Hero 6 (in 200 more theaters) than adults going to see Interstellar, with the Disney flick pulling in almost $9 million more. But Interstellar was still a big hit, making $188,017,894, hanging in the top five through its first five weeks, even with the likes of Dumb and Dumber To and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 hitting theaters during that time.
8. The Polar Express ($194,949,659)
Before The Polar Express hit theaters on November 10, 2004, it had already gained significant publicity for being the first all-digital motion-capture film, and for featuring six different characters played by Tom Hanks. Plus, following the successes of Forrest Gump and Castaway, it was Hanks’ third collaboration with director Robert Zemeckis. It cost a record-breaking (for an animated film) $165 million to make, but thanks to its publicity, star power, and critical acclaim, it brought home $194,949,659 domestically (but over $300 million worldwide, so it did just fine).
But, of course, it never reached No. 1. A Disney kids’ movie out-earned this one, just as one did Interstellar. This time it was The Incredibles, in its second weekend, which more than doubled The Polar Express’ take. Still, this story of a boy riding a train to Santa’s workshop hung around in the top four for six weeks heading into Christmas.
7. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs ($196,573,705)
Amazingly, the animated hit Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is the third film in what will become a five-film franchise with this summer’s Ice Age: Collision Course, yet it’s the only one of the four that have not reached No. 1. Weirder still, it’s the highest grossing (domestically), at $196,573,705 – just over $1 million more than the second film, Ice Age: The Meltdown.
Featuring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary and Queen Latifah, this film was in a fight to the finish for top spot at the box office during its opening weekend in early July 2009. Thanks to being shown in 135 more theaters during its second week, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made just $630,495 more than Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. It hung on to that No. 2 spot for three weekends before dropping to No. 5.
6. World War Z ($202,359,711)
In June of 2013, zombies were huge, Brad Pitt was huge, and the combination of the two was huge as well– World War Z just didn’t reach No. 1. Based on the 2006 novel by Max Brooks (although it isn’t exactly faithful), the film suffered from production issues, rewrites and re-shoots and received an overall decent critical response, on the way to an impressive domestic take of $202,359,711.
But why didn’t it reach that top spot at the box office? Once again, we can blame a Disney children’s flick: Monsters University. Playing in almost 400 more theaters, young Mike and Sully debuted the same weekend with over $82 million, while World War Z took in $66 million. But it only had that one weekend at No. 2 before falling to third the next week, and continuing to drop after that. A sequel is slated for next year.
5. Sherlock Holmes ($209,028,679)
Sherlock Holmes debuted on Christmas Day, 2009, boosted by Robert Downey Jr.’s career revival sparked the previous year by Iron Man. It was director Guy Ritchie’s more action-packed take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal characters, Holmes and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) – and audiences loved it so much that it spawned a sequel and a rumored third installment. Considering its massive success, taking in $209,028,679, it’s surprising that it never reached the top of the box office.
It’s surprising, that is, until you see what it was up against: Avatar, the top-grossing film of all time. Sherlock debuted during Avatar’s second week of release. Sherlock’s $62 million take would lead the box office in most other circumstances, but not when Avatar is making $75 million. The two films remained one and two for three straight weeks before Ritchie’s film dropped to fifth.
4. Alvin and the Chipmunks ($217,326,974)
Who would’ve thought Alvin and the Chipmunks would be a huge, $217,326,974 hit in 2007? There’s something about those characters that keeps appealing to kids of different generations, even after they go away for a while as animated characters in between. They emerged on TV in the early ‘60s, then were strictly an audio phenomenon until the early ‘80s, when their Christmas special and Saturday morning cartoon went big. Alvin, Simon and Theodore were mostly quiet in the ‘90s, but came back with this film.
It debuted the weekend of December 14, 2007 at No. 2, well behind the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, which made about $33 million more in its debut. It proved to be a surprisingly popular holiday diversion, remaining in the top five for its first seven weekends.
3. Beauty and the Beast ($218,951,625)
The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Beauty and the Beast two years later ushered in a new era of mega-popular, critically acclaimed Disney animated musicals. Disney had been trying to adapt the fairy tale for decades, but finally hit pay dirt with this one, which grossed $218,951,625 domestically. The story of a prince who’s turned into a monster and must win the love of a beautiful woman in order to change back also spawned a massively popular soundtrack, and the title track helped boost the career of a young Céline Dion.
It officially premiered on November 13, 1991, in just two theaters, but its debut to the masses came nine days later. That weekend it came in it at No. 3, topped by the second week of Cape Fear and the debut of The Addams Family. The next week, My Girl narrowly beat it out for second spot – but after dropping down to sixth in its sixth week, it magically jumped to second in week seven. It became the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but never quite reached the top spot at the box office.
2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($219,614,612)
Yup, as shockingly well as 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks did without reaching No. 1, its sequel/Squeakquel fared even better without hitting the top spot two years later, raking in $219,614,612. Of course, there have now been two more sequels in 2011 and 2015, each doing much worse than the one before, bottoming out with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip making just under $85 million domestically on a $90 million budget.
But back to the massively successful Squeakquel. Like all of the Chipmunks films, it was released for the kid-heavy Christmas season, on December 23, 2009. If that time frame sounds familiar, it was victim to the same culprit that kept Sherlock Holmes from the top spot: Avatar. In fact, Alvin made just under $49 million that first weekend, but ranked third behind those two action-heavy offerings. Because of those two, The Squeakquel made all that cash without ever rising higher than third spot overall.
1. My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241,438,208)
Back in 2002, My Big Fat Greek Wedding became not only the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time, but one of the biggest out-of-nowhere hits ever. And, clearly, it’s the highest grossing movie to never reach the top of the box office. Made for just $5 million, writer and star Nia Vardalos rose to (temporary) fame on the way to a $241,438,208 haul. It led to a quickly-axed television series, also starring Vardalos, and 14 years later My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is coming to theaters March 25.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding first hit theaters April 19, 2002 and made just under $600,000 in 108 theaters, ranking 20th. While most films decline in box office take after the first weekend, this film only went up and up and up, thanks to strong word of mouth. It expanded to more and more theaters, finally cracking the top 10 in its fifth week and, amazingly, peaking at No. 2 in its 20th week.
Can you think of any other huge movies that never reached the top of the heap? Let us know in the comments!
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