Geek Trivia: The root of all sequels

What is the most profitable movie ever made, as measured by percentage return on initial investment -- a horror film that underscores just how insanely easy it is to make money on cheaply produced fright films?

Halloween represents many things to many people. For the Celtic traditionalists, it's a New Year's celebration of Samhain. For certain Christian denominations, it is a time for solemn remembrance of the dead before All Saints Day. And for retailers in the United States, Halloween is the next best thing to Christmas.

The National Retail Federation estimates that the average U.S. resident will spend $66.54 on Halloween this year. That's $24.17 on costumes, $20.39 on candy, and $21.98 on decorations, cards, and various other All Hallows accoutrements. All told, retailers should rake in over five billion dollars from the fright fest in 2008.

That's orders of magnitude less than what will be spent on Christmas in the United States, but it goes a long way towards explaining how costumes, decorations, and trick-or-treating became such indelible elements of Halloween in the United States. There's money to be made from these traditions, so the profitable elements of Halloween are going to be promoted, encouraged, and monetized.

That said, much of our contemporary Halloween imagery -- vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters -- comes from another commercialized culture exporter: the movies. On an evening when we're all supposed to be wary of evil spirits, Hollywood has done a remarkable job of giving us specific monstrosities to fear and, more importantly, imitate. This is of a piece with the other money-driven Halloween elements, as horror movies are perhaps the most profitable film genre of all time.

That may seem an odd thing to say, when one consults the list of highest-grossing movies of all time and finds not a single horror flick in the top 25. The Sixth Sense is the highest grossing scare film on the list, and it comes in at number 32. If one were to adjust for inflation, The Exorcist jumps way up to a respectable number nine, but only The Sixth Sense and the original 1953 House of Wax join it in the Top 100, meaning horror rarely rakes in the big bucks.

The secret to horror's success is that fright films are exceedingly cheap to make, so in terms of percentage return on investment, horror films are mind-bogglingly profitable. In fact, the most profitable film ever made, as measured by percentage ROI, is a horror flick.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...