Special Report

The 30 Biggest Box Office Hits of the 1970s

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures Corporation

The 1970s breathed new life into the American film industry. It saw the birth of the blockbuster and the “Star Wars” phenomenon. It saw the groundbreaking pioneers of the “New Hollywood” come of age. Viewers were treated to revolutionary visual effects that turned science fiction and horror into genres to be taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics alike. (To see how the nature of what we watch has evolved over time, see the 100 best movies of the last 100 years, according to critics.)

The changes in the film world weren’t only creative. Advances in advertising, marketing, and distribution techniques addressed the new threat of cable television. Studios began releasing movies almost exclusively on Friday nights to get the most they could out of weekend audiences, and “opening weekend” box office receipts became the ultimate measure of cinematic success. 

Click here to see the biggest box office hits of the 1970s

To identify the biggest box office hits of the 1970’s, 24/7 Tempo reviewed box office data from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by consulting firm Nash Information Services, last updated in April 2021. Rankings were out of 4,230 movies for which data was available. Box office figures are not inflation adjusted. The actors and directors for each movie are from IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon.  

By the mid-1970s, studios were targeting younger, less sophisticated patrons. “Jaws” (1975) invented the big-budget summertime smash hit, only to see “Star Wars” (1977) nearly double its domestic ticket sales. Spielberg and Lucas may be household names now, but they were 27 and 33 respectively when they changed the film industry forever. (Star power helped sell films, too, of course. See who came out on top on our list of box office stars, every year since 1945.)

Then “Superman” (1978) brought licensed content to life, racking up a record-breaking final budget of $55 million in the process, but still ending up one of the highest grossing films of the decade. The business of making movies would never be the same again. 

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

30. Alien (1979)
> Domestic box office: $62.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #1336 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright
> Director: Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott’s psychological thriller brought the “chestburster” into the American consciousness, and helped turn Sigourney Weaver into a household name. The film earned an Oscar for its special effects, as well as a nomination for set design.

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Source: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

29. Patton (1970)
> Domestic box office: $62.5 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #1328 out of all movies in database
> Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young, Michael Strong
> Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

This film follows the controversial General George S. Patton on his historical campaign through North Africa into Europe, highlighting his shortcomings and successes in equal measure. The film took home seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Source: Courtesy of Buena Vista Distribution Company

28. The Rescuers (1977)
> Domestic box office: $71.2 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #1146 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, Geraldine Page, Joe Flynn
> Director: John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, Art Stevens

This animated feature tells the story of The Rescue Aid Society — a group of mice that live beneath the United Nations in New York City and offer help to anyone in need. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor were among the voice actors in this family classic.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

27. The Jerk (1979)
> Domestic box office: $73.7 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #1105 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King
> Director: Carl Reiner

Steve Martin plays a naive orphan raised by a black family in rural Mississippi. He leaves his home and family at 18 to explore the world.

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Source: Courtesy of Associated Film Distribution

26. The Muppet Movie (1979)
> Domestic box office: $76.7 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #1046 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt
> Director: James Frawley

The Muppets travel across America in this puppet-powered feature, hoping to make it to Hollywood and see their names in lights. Kermit is pursued by a dastardly purveyor of frog legs, a villain known as Doc Hopper.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

25. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
> Domestic box office: $80.5 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #994 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon
> Director: Norman Jewison

Tevye is a poor milkman in czarist Russia who must learn to live with his daughters’ choices of husbands. This adaptation of the classic Broadway musical would go on to win three Oscars.

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

24. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
> Domestic box office: $82.3 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #967 out of all movies in database
> Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan
> Director: Robert Wise

Admiral Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise are forced to confront a powerful alien threat as it makes its way towards Earth, destroying everything in its path.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

23. Apocalypse Now (1979)
> Domestic box office: $83.5 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #941 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest
> Director: Francis Ford Coppola

A U.S. Army officer is sent on a secret mission into Cambodia to assassinate a decorated Colonel (played by Brando) whom the Army fears has gone insane. The film won two Oscars.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

22. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
> Domestic box office: $84.6 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #921 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons
> Director: Ronald Neame

This action thriller follows nine people as they try to escape a cruise ship flipped upside down by a tsunami. The film took home an Oscar.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

21. Young Frankenstein (1974)
> Domestic box office: $86.3 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #896 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle
> Director: Mel Brooks

Gene Wilder plays an American neurosurgeon who is the descendent of the infamous Dr. Victor von Frankenstein. The young doctor returns to Transylvania on a mission to prove to the world that his grandfather was no monster.

Source: Courtesy of American International Pictures

20. The Amityville Horror (1979)
> Domestic box office: $86.4 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #894 out of all movies in database
> Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud
> Director: Stuart Rosenberg

A couple of newlyweds and their three children move into their dream house on the Long Island Sound, only to find that houses sometimes do have memories.

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

19. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
> Domestic box office: $94.2 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #813 out of all movies in database
> Starring: John Travolta, Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Joseph Cali
> Director: John Badham

John Travolta stars in this disco classic as Tony Manero, a young man living in Brooklyn who lives for Saturday night. Unsure of what to do after his high school graduation, Manero practices for his local club’s dance competition and dreams about a life beyond his borough.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

18. Jaws 2 (1978)
> Domestic box office: $102.9 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #718 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo
> Director: Jeannot Szwarc

This sequel to the first American blockbuster goes back to Amity Island, where the population must once again face the threat of a Great White Shark in its waters.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

17. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
> Domestic box office: $106.3 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #688 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry
> Director: Robert Benton

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in this moving tale of divorce. The film took home five Oscars in 1980: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffman), and Best Supporting Actress (Streep).

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

16. Love Story (1970)
> Domestic box office: $106.4 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #687 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland
> Director: Arthur Hiller

This tragic tale of love follows a couple from different backgrounds as they do everything they can to make their lives their own. The film won an Oscar.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
> Domestic box office: $109.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #660 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman, Peter Brocco
> Director: Milos Forman

Milos Forman’s adaptation of the 1962 Ken Kesey novel stars Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, a criminal who has managed to plead insanity and has been committed to a mental hospital. The film won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

14. American Graffiti (1973)
> Domestic box office: $115.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #615 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith
> Director: George Lucas

This coming-of-age classic follows two best friends on their last night in town before they leave for college. Curt and Steve navigate their fears, expectations, and relationships as they look towards their futures.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

13. The Towering Inferno (1974)
> Domestic box office: $116.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #605 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway
> Director: John Guillermin

This classic disaster stars Paul Newman as Doug Roberts, the architect of a newly constructed skyscraper in Los Angeles. Roberts notices that his specifications for the building’s electrical wiring have not been followed, and calamity ensues.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

12. Rocky (1976)
> Domestic box office: $117.2 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #596 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers
> Director: John G. Avildsen

Sylvester Stallone became a household name after starring as Rocky, a small-time Philadelphia fighter who gets a chance to make it big. The film won three Oscars, including Best Picture.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

11. Blazing Saddles (1974)
> Domestic box office: $119.5 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #577 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Harvey Korman
> Director: Mel Brooks

This classic Western spoof tells the story of Bart, an urbanite black sheriff sent to a frontier town threatened by a railroad land grab. Mel Brooks plays Jim, the governor and Bart’s guide as he attempts to win over his new constituents.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

10. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
> Domestic box office: $126.7 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #526 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jerry Reed, Mike Henry
> Director: Hal Needham

Burt Reynolds stars as the Bandit in this comedy-adventure classic. Bandit agrees to haul a truckload of beer across state lines on a dare, but when he picks up a hitchhiking runaway bride (Sally Fields) he gets more than he bargained for.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

9. Superman (1978)
> Domestic box office: $134.2 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #472 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando
> Director: Richard Donner

This superhero classic tells the origin story and coming-of-age of Superman, played by Christopher Reeve in a breakout role. The film’s $55 million dollar budget was the largest ever at the time it was made, and helped pay for talent like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

8. The Godfather (1972)
> Domestic box office: $135.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #467 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton
> Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel follows an organized crime family as they face a transition of power. The film won three Oscars, including Best Picture.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

7. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
> Domestic box office: $141.6 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #427 out of all movies in database
> Starring: John Belushi, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce, Stephen Furst
> Director: John Landis

This slapstick comedy follows the men of Delta House, one of two fraternities at Faber College, as they face expulsion from the university at the hands of Dean Wormer.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

6. The Sting (1973)
> Domestic box office: $159.6 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #351 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning
> Director: George Roy Hill

This comedy-drama tells the story of two con men who work together to pull off the scam to end all scams. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
> Domestic box office: $169.1 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #318 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon
> Director: Steven Spielberg

This science fiction classic follows an Indiana lineman and a group of research scientists as they try to understand their experiences of extraterrestrial contact. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

4. Grease (1978)
> Domestic box office: $181.8 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #264 out of all movies in database
> Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway
> Director: Randal Kleiser

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star as Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson in this musical comedy about high school romance in the 1960s. Danny and Sandy fell in love at the beach over the summer, but things aren’t quite the same when they discover that they now attend the same school.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

3. The Exorcist (1973)
> Domestic box office: $230.3 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #160 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb
> Director: William Friedkin

William Peter Blatty adapted his 1971 novel for the screen in 1973. Blatty’s story follows an actress who thinks that her daughter has been possessed by an evil force, and is willing to do anything to save her. The film went on to win two Oscars.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

2. Jaws (1975)
> Domestic box office: $260.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #124 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary
> Director: Steven Spielberg

Following a series of attacks, a sleepy beach community must find a way to hunt down the Great White Shark stalking its waters before it kills again. Steven Spielberg’s historic film won three Oscars and launched the summer-blockbuster phenomenon/

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

1. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
> Domestic box office: $461.0 million
> Box office rank out of all movies: #24 out of all movies in database
> Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness
> Director: George Lucas

One young man must join forces with a rag-tag bunch of adventurers to take down the Galactic Empire before it’s too late. The film — which was the original “Star Wars” movie, later retitled — won six Oscars and a Special Achievement Award.

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