Cinematic success can be defined in many different ways:
- Oscar wins
- Acclaim from critics
- Box office revenue
The latter is the greatest industry barometer. Box office success doesn’t always mean that something is higher quality than the other. But it does hold a lot of power in Hollywood. When a movie is a financial success, the people that were responsible for it benefit from that in their film industry careers — even screenwriters.
These days (pre-pandemic and hopefully post-pandemic), most box office successes are comprised of sequels, prequels, reboots, re-envisionings, and adaptations of intellectual property (novels, comic books, TV shows, short stories, news articles, memoirs, etc.). But most screenwriters dream of getting their original screenplay onto those big screens. And many lose hope when all they see in the various lists of greatest box office hits of all-time are franchise films and adaptations.
Here we share the top 25 box office hits based on original screenplays.
What can screenwriters learn from this list?
Original screenplays matter. They’re important, no matter what anybody tells you about the odds of original screenplays getting produced. Yes, the odds aren’t great. Most screenwriters rely and thrive on writing assignments. But having a hot original spec script is key to every screenwriter’s journey.
And believe it or not, there are more original screenplays being produced than there ever has been — especially with the advent of streamers acquiring, developing, producing, and distributing feature films.
To keep an even playing field for all, we are using the lifetime U.S. box office numbers that are adjusted for inflation.
One very glaring and interesting fact: it’s been a long time since an original screenplay was a huge box office hit. This is for a couple reasons: 1) declining box office revenues as streaming and social media compete for viewers attention, 2) emphasis from studios on pre-existing intellectual property (sequels, spinoffs and adaptations) with less appetite for the risk that’s associated with movies based on completely original screenplays.
Click on the Writers’ Names to Read the Scripts!
Top 25 movies based on original screenplays…
#1 Star Wars: A New Hope
Luke Skywalker joins forces with a Jedi Knight, a cocky pilot, a Wookiee, and two droids to save the galaxy from the Empire’s world-destroying battle station, while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the mysterious Darth Vader.
#2 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his homeworld.
A seventeen-year-old aristocrat falls in love with a kind but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.
Note: Yes, it was based on a historical event, but it was an original screenplay and not based on any pre-existing book. And it was not a remake of any previous movies based on the Titanic tragedy.
A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.
#5 The Lion King (1994)
Lion Prince Simba and his father are targeted by his bitter uncle, who wants to ascend the throne himself.
Note: The Lion King was the first Disney animated feature to be an original story, rather than be based on an already existing work. The filmmakers have said that the story of The Lion King was inspired by the lives of Joseph and Moses, from the Bible, and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Because it is animation, it has around 25 credited writers. With these three being the main writers: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton (Story by)
#6 The Sting
Two grifters team up to pull off the ultimate con.
#7 Raiders of the Lost Ark
In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler’s Nazis can obtain its awesome powers.
Three former parapsychology professors set up shop as a unique ghost removal service.
#9 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Wyoming, early 1900s. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid are the leaders of a band of outlaws. After a train robbery goes wrong they find themselves on the run with a posse hard on their heels. Their solution — escape to Bolivia.
#10 Independence Day
The aliens are coming and their goal is to invade and destroy Earth. Fighting superior technology, mankind’s best weapon is the will to survive.
#11 Home Alone
An eight-year-old troublemaker must protect his house from a pair of burglars when he is accidentally left home alone by his family during Christmas vacation.
#12 Beverly Hills Cop
A freewheeling Detroit cop pursuing a murder investigation finds himself dealing with the very different culture of Beverly Hills.
#13 American Graffiti
A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.
#14 Blazing Saddles
In order to ruin a western town, a corrupt politician appoints a black Sheriff, who promptly becomes his most formidable adversary.
#15 Finding Nemo
After his son is captured in the Great Barrier Reef and taken to Sydney, a timid clownfish sets out on a journey to bring him home.
#16 The Greatest Show on Earth
The dramatic lives of trapeze artists, a clown, and an elephant trainer are told against a background of circus spectacle.
Written by Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon, Theodore St. John, and Frank Cavett (Story by)
#17 Back to the Future
Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent thirty years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his close friend, the eccentric scientist Doc Brown.
#18 The Sixth Sense
A boy who communicates with spirits seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist.
#19 Smokey and the Bandit
The Bandit is hired on to run a tractor-trailer full of beer over state lines, in hot pursuit by a pesky sheriff.
Written by James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, Alan Mandel, with Story by credits to Hal Needham and Robert L. Levy
#20 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Roy Neary, an electric lineman, watches how his quiet and ordinary daily life turns upside down after a close encounter with a UFO.
A small-time boxer gets a supremely rare chance to fight a heavy-weight champion in a bout in which he strives to go the distance for his self-respect.
Bill and Jo Harding, advanced storm chasers on the brink of divorce, must join together to create an advanced weather alert system by putting themselves in the cross-hairs of extremely violent tornadoes.
Written by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin
Note: Uncredited writers include Joss Whedon, Steven Zaillian, and Jeff Nathanson
#23 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
A group of motorists hear about a crook’s hidden stash of loot, and race against each other across the country to get to it.
Written by William Rose & Tania Rose
After a young man is murdered, his spirit stays behind to warn his lover of impending danger, with the help of a reluctant psychic.
#25 Monsters Inc.
In order to power the city, monsters have to scare children so that they scream. However, the children are toxic to the monsters, and after a child gets through, 2 monsters realize things may not be what they think.
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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies