Scary and Profitable: Horror's Box Office Winners

Few horror flicks achieve blockbuster status, but plenty make frightfully good coin.

Scary movies have been around since a German vampire named Nosferatu made his silent-screen debut in 1922. Thanks to their generally low production costs and freakishly devoted audiences, many of these shock fests are goldmines, especially for smaller studios looking to build a rep.

The Halloween spirit helps too. Two weeks ago, stylish vamp flick 30 Days of Night, brainchild of Ghost House Pictures and Sony Entertainment, was the box-office leader with $16 million in ticket sales--trumping Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone ($6 million) and the Rendition ($4.1 million), starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, both of which opened the same weekend.

"Horror is the genre that small distributors exploit to build their studio, like New Line in the 1980s [with The Nightmare On Elm Street franchise] and LionsGate now," says Brandon Gray, founder and president of Box Office Mojo, a movie-research company.

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While eight of the 10 highest-grossing horror movies appeared before 1980, studios are still gleefully butchering. One of them, LionsGate Entertainment, has made some 20 horror movies since 2000, including the grisly Hostel and Saw series. The fourth Saw installment is due out Oct. 26.

Most horror movies don't break the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, but they do appear quite profitable. "It doesn't cost a lot of money to create scares, and [the studios] don't have to higher elite talent," says Gray.

According to Box Office Mojo, the Saw movies have brought in $228 million in ticket sales so far, though the films only cost $15.7 million to produce (all dollars adjusted to current prices). Hostel has nabbed $64.9 million in receipts on just $15.1 million in production costs.

Production does not include marketing expenses, which could be a fraction of--or in the extreme, slightly more than--the production costs. That still leaves a heap behind. Throw in aftermarket sales from rentals and DVDs and many horror flicks look like cash cauldrons.

The profit equation tends to hold for sequels, too. While box office receipts generally fall with each new installment, so do the marketing dollars.

That's why in August Dimension Films (part of the Weinstein Company) was willing to release a remake of the original Halloween (the ninth movie in that franchise), even though it brought in just $57 million at the box office, vs. $132 million (adjusted to present dollars) for the original classic in 1978. Production costs for the original: a mere $1 million.

So, which flicks have carved up the competition at the box office over the years?

Topping the list: Jaws, released in 1975 and directed by Steven Spielberg. Everyone's favorite great white shark pulled in $842 million at the theaters. Jaws 2, the only sequel to make the top 10 on this list, came in at No. 7 with $228 million. (All figures are adjusted to current average prices, or $6.58 per ticket.)

The Exorcist earned the No. 2 spot with $727 million at the box office back in 1973. M. Night Shyamalan's ghost-thriller The Sixth Sense curled its dead fingers around the No. 3 spot, with $378 million, while his Signs, about spooky crop circles, came in at No. 6.

The original House of Wax, released in 1953, hit No. 4, followed by Hitchcock's Psycho at No. 5, the original Amityville Horror (No. 8), Alien (No. 9) and Silence Of The Lambs (No. 10).