The highest-grossing British films of all time
The trouble of working out homegrown success on a Hollywood scale
What makes a British film British? British financing? A British cast and crew? Danny Dyer?
The official BAFTA definition defines it as any film with “significant British involvement” that is also certified as British by the BFI. Getting more complicated, the BFI grants a film “British status” (for the purposes of tax relief) if it scores at least 16 points out of a possible 31 in a cultural test to assess its Britishness. Things get stickier still when you actually read the list of questions and poke into some of the loopholes.
Gravity, for example, was given BAFTA in 2014 for Outstanding British Film – qualifying because it was filmed in an English studio, and because Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron happened to have a house in London at the time. The same year, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was nixed because it was a non-British story, based on a non-British book and co-financed by a country (South Africa) that wasn’t on a qualifying shortlist – despite having a mostly British cast, crew, director and production.
In short, it’s almost impossible to work out exactly what constitutes a British film – which makes it tricky to work out which British films have taken the most at the box office. Sticking to the industry guidelines, the following films make up the top 10 (only about three of which actually seem like British films):
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Worldwide gross: $2,068,223,624
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Worldwide gross: $2,046,452,723
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)
Worldwide gross: $1,341,511,219
Beauty And The Beast (2017)
Worldwide gross: $1,263,521,126
Worldwide gross: $1,108,561,013
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Worldwide gross: $1,084,939,099
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Worldwide gross: $1,056,057,273
The Dark Knight (2008)
Worldwide gross: $1,004,558,444
Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Worldwide gross: $974,755,371
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)
Worldwide gross: $960,283,305
Star Wars: The Force Awakens tops the list, letting Britain claim ownership of the third highest grossing film of all time – beaten only by Avatar and Titanic. Disney and Lucasfilm (and JJ Abrams) might seem as American as they come, but the film qualified for a British passport by being mostly filmed at Pinewood Studios, using ILM’s London office for the bulk of the digital effects, and by having a largely Brit cast and crew.
London’s superior studio facilities at Pinewood, Elstree, Shepperton and Leavesden (not to mention Twickenham’s recent $50 million investment in Liverpool) gives the British film industry a massive boast – with UK technical crews and production talent now working on more than half of the highest grossing Hollywood productions made in the 20 years.
Still, the list can be a bit deceiving. For most of us, when we think about “British film”, we don’t immediately think about Star Wars. Britain has a long history of making great independent films that aren’t beholden to Hollywood – with most exhibiting the kind of left-field, understated, quirky charm that leans into whatever weirdness defines the national character.
Avengers Infinity War might technically be a British film, but it feels every inch like an American movie because it’s based on American comics, starring American actors, from an American studio.
A more suitable list might be the following – counting down the highest grossing independent British films that were financed in the UK:
The King’s Speech (2011)
Worldwide gross: $414,211,549
Slumdog Millionaire (2009)
Worldwide gross: $377,910,544
Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994)
Worldwide gross: $245,700,832
Worldwide gross: $268,047,808
The Full Monty (1997)
Worldwide gross: $257,938,649
Paddington 2 (2017)
Worldwide gross: $226,882,399
The Woman in Black (2012)
Worldwide gross: $127,730,736
The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)
Worldwide gross: $88,025,781
The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
Worldwide gross: $63,852,235
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Worldwide gross: $62,493,712
The King’s Speech made the leap across the Atlantic so successfully in part because it won so many Oscars (ditto for Slumdog Millionaire) and others like Paddington and The Woman In Black worked because they had such a big crossover appeal. How the comedy of The Inbetweeners worked on foreign audiences is less clear – although the bulk of the box office for both movies came from the UK and Australia.
Finally, there’s the inflation problem. Avatar might officially be the highest grossing film of all time, but that’s mostly just because it cost more to see it in 2009 than it would have done in 1939. Adjusting the all-time gross list for inflation, James Cameron’s film only ranks at number 15 – with Gone With The Wind taking the top spot.
Taking all of international film-going history into account, Star Wars: The Force Awakens still comes out as the highest grossing (official) British film, none of the independents make the top 300 and Thunderball beats Skyfall by almost 200 places.
Deciding what constitutes a British film is hard enough, but working out which one made the most money is almost impossible. The good news is that the British film industry is doing better now than it’s ever done before – generating more that $3 billion for the UK and recently outperforming the pharmaceutical sector in employment and revenue.
A lot of key professionals are worried about the effect Brexit might have on the industry’s continued success – since the business relies heavily on people from other countries being able to work in the UK for long stretches – but with more Bond, more Marvel, more Star Wars and many more independents already in the works at British studios, there’s likely to be plenty of boom still to come before we have to start worrying about the bust.