The Most Surprising Box Office Hits Of 2022

So many people in the movie business looked to 2021 as the year that was going to save the industry following the disaster that was 2020. Not quite. In truth, the recovery has been more gradual and uneven than any of us expected, though 2022 brought us much closer to something resembling normalcy. And sure, a big part of that was expected hits like "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" and "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" bringing in the big bucks. Heck, even "Halloween Ends" did over $100 million against largely negative reviews with a day-and-date release on Peacock. It was closer to business as usual and, with any luck, 2023 will be even better.

But a big part of what helped is that there were a number of surprise winners at the box office this year to go along with the likes of "Jurassic World Dominion" pulling in $1 billion. And yeah, sure, we had more than our fair share of flops this year as well, with movies like "Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore," "Strange World," and "Morbius" doing far less business than expected. But, on the flipside, original horror movies, adult-friendly dramas, rom-coms, and even Indian blockbuster epics managed to draw unexpectedly large crowds. So, let's take a look at some of the most surprising box office hits of 2022 and see what we can learn from them.


Disney's 20th Century Studios has, somewhat surprisingly, been doing quite well when it comes to genre fare, with "Ready or Not" and "Prey" on Hulu serving as a couple of examples. But one of the biggest surprises in recent memory came in September when the box office was in a major post-summer rut. Enter the mysterious yet totally bonkers "Barbarian," which managed to entice audiences through an intriguing premise without showing its hand, allowing director Zach Cregger to take everyone on a wild ride. Thanks in large part to its very tiny $4.5 million budget, the movie became a huge success, taking in $45.3 million, with the vast majority of that coming from domestic ticket sales to the tune of $40.8 million. Couple that with the assured VOD/streaming success and Cregger figures to have a promising career in horror after this. Now, if Disney would go ahead and release this on Blu-ray at some point, they could add even more money to the pile. I say this, very selfishly, as a man who wants his favorite movie of the year on Blu-ray, damn it.


It was, all told, a pretty brutal year for original movies at the box office. Yes, original horror did well (and some of those titles are on this list), but adult-oriented originals floundered miserably on the whole. Yet, a charming little man and his dog tale, simply titled "Dog," managed to cut through the noise. Channing Tatum co-directed and starred in the movie, and United Artists found themselves with a low-key hit. Against solid reviews, the comedic drama netted a very solid $84.7 million worldwide, including a whopping $61.7 million domestic, all against a very reasonable $15 million budget. This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly why studios should not abandon mid-budget movies. Even if this had cost $25 million pre-marketing, it still would have been a big win.

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero

One thing that became clear in 2022 is that special programming can help fill the void as the industry continues to find ways to put meat in seats. One area that has been particularly successful? Anime on the big screen. Domestically, the best example of this was "Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero," which brought the long-running franchise to its many, many loyal fans. Crunchyroll scored with this one, as it earned a damn good $38.1 million domestic to go with an even better $48.4 million overseas. Amazingly enough, it actually managed to beat out Universal's creature feature "Beast," which stars Idris Elba, for the top spot on its opening weekend. All told, it made $86.5 million and, along with other hits like "One Piece Film: Red," it has been cemented that anime is a viable option for North American audiences. These films may not do blockbuster numbers, but they can draw a crowd big enough to matter. Exhibitors can and should continue to look at anime in 2023 and beyond.


As mentioned earlier, adult-friendly fare had a tough go in 2022, while superheroes and horror flicks were gobbling up most of the money from moviegoers. But Baz Luhrman and Warner Bros. got the formula right with the Elvis Presley biopic starring Austin Butler, simply titled "Elvis." An over-the-top flare mixed with a potentially Oscar-worthy performance convinced audiences to show up en masse for this one, with the film ultimately pulling in a damn great $286 million worldwide. The best part? WB managed to not overspend on this one, with the budget sitting at $85 million. Below $90 million seems to be the sweet spot if you're not going for big blockbuster movie money. Sure, an Elvis biopic always seemed like a fine idea, but in the post-pandemic era? It was never a guaranteed moneymaker. The fact that it earned well over three times its budget is a nice surprise of the highest order.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Man, who would have thought that an inventive multiverse-spanning sci-fi film that mostly takes place in an office building with an Asian lead cast would be the feel good box office story of the year? "Everything Everywhere All at Once" has defied all logic as it relates to how we think of the movie business in the aftermath of the pandemic. A mid-budget movie ($25 million, to be exact), distributed by arthouse experts A24, with now A-list movie stars that had a modest opening weekend somehow grossed over $100 million. Not only that, but it's also got a real shot at taking home Best Picture at the Oscars. Absolutely everything went right for filmmaking duo the Daniels here, from casting Michelle Yeoh in the lead role, to the heartwarming return of Ke Huy Quan. It word-of-mouthed its way to $103 million and became an instant classic. Oh, and to top it all off, it's now A24's highest-grossing movie ever. A genuinely amazing surprise that nobody could have predicted heading into the year. There is hope for the future of original cinema.

Orphan: First Kill

Sequels that have long gaps between the original and the follow-up are often not a recipe for success. Think "Zoolander 2." Prequels, for all intents and purposes, are going to function similarly. That's why "Orphan: First Kill" seemed like a downright silly gamble as a sequel 13 years after the fact to "Orphan," a movie that was a hit but not a huge hit in its day. Not only that, but the lead Isabelle Fuhrman had to, convincingly, play someone who looked like they were 12 years old again in this prequel, even though she is actually a full grown adult. No easy task. Yet, somehow, this prequel worked and audiences were surprisingly hungry for it. So much so that the movie managed to make a downright surprising $37 million worldwide. The vast majority of that came from international audiences, but a little over $5 million of it was domestic. The reason? Paramount decided to release it on Paramount+ rather than do a full theatrical play. Given the numbers we ended up with (and given another movie we're going to talk about in a minute), I can't help but wonder if they would rethink that decision. Even so, against a $10 million budget, this move did better than anyone might have expected. Maybe if we get "Orphan 3," the studio will do the right thing.


If we were to just look at the word "surprise" as it relates to a movie breaking through the noise in the current environment, "RRR" is probably going to look like the biggest surprise of them all. Who could have possibly predicted that an utterly wild Indian blockbuster of epic (and we do mean epic) proportions would somehow become a straight-up global smash? It was hardly advertised in the U.S. and yet, became a downright specialty hit. Part musical, part historical epic, part buddy movie, all action, all three hours of it, and people ate it up to the tune of nearly $150 million worldwide. It has also, not for nothing, became a huge hit on Netflix and is looking like an Oscar favorite. This is right up there with "Everything Everywhere All at Once" as one of the feel-good success stories of the year.


In a year that saw "Halloween Ends" and "The Black Phone" also arrive to mainstream success, it is downright stunning that I sit here before you to talk about "Smile," an original horror film from director Parker Finn with a $17 million budget based on the short "Laura Hasn't Slept" that somehow reigns as this year's highest-grossing horror movie. Not just original horror, mind you, but horror of any kind. And honestly, it's not even all that close, as Jordan Peele's "NOPE" ($171.2 million) would be next in line. And "Smile" made an astounding $216.1 million, with a nearly even domestic/international split. This is another win for original cinema in 2022 and, more importantly, something that will make studios look twice before releasing a movie direct to streaming. The reason? "Smile" was, amazingly enough, originally supposed to go directly to Paramount+. But Paramount opted to change strategies following positive test screenings, and they were rewarded handsomely for that decision.

Terrifier 2

Circling back to surprisingly successful follow-ups, Damien Leone decided to bring Art the Clown out of retirement for "Terrifier 2," a sequel to 2016's low-budget "Terrifier" that arrived in theaters in September with absolutely zero expectations. This was always more of a streaming play, given its very modest $250,000 budget. And yet, it got a theatrical release despite being unrated and well over two hours. The ultra-gory mega slasher became a straight-up viral success and pushed the film to just shy of $12 million at the box office with right next to zero marketing. No TV spots, no trailers playing in theaters ahead of other big releases — pure buzz. All of that ink spilled over the surprise success also, in turn, helped make the movie an even bigger hit on VOD and streaming. This defied all current industry logic and will probably be something independent filmmakers study for years to come.

The Lost City

Because Netflix has been dominating the rom-com market for years (well before the pandemic), it seemed like the genre was dead as a theatrical concern. But Paramount, again coming through with a win, decided that "The Lost City" was a worthwhile gamble. With Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum leading the way, not to mention a stellar bit part from Brad Pitt, the movie managed to attract mainstream moviegoers en masse. It certainly helps that the movie was genuinely good, but still, it's doubtful anyone thought this film would go on to make $190.8 million globally, including a stellar $105.8 million domestic. So, even with its reported $74 million budget, that is a sound hit for Paramount, and one that also performed very well on VOD and on Paramount+ for them after the fact. Theatrical hits, we're learning, actually seem to perform better on streaming than films released straight to digital platforms. This is the business model that is probably best suited for longterm success in post-COVID Hollywood, and Paramount executed it superbly all year long.

Top Gun: Maverick

Speaking of Paramount, boy did they come out looking smart by holding "Top Gun: Maverick" for a full two years or so, waiting for the right time to strike after the pandemic eased up. For their patience, they were rewarded with one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. With a jaw-dropping $126 million opening weekend, it was off to the races for Tom Cruise's long-awaited sequel to the '80s classic. In the end, after chugging along, week after week, it finished with $718.6 million domestic, which frankly would have been a great global total for the movie. But it also made $770 million internationally, meaning it pulled in $1.48 billion globally, good enough to make it the 11th biggest movie of all time, just below "Furious 7" ($1.51 billion). Did it seem like director Joseph Kosinski's sequel was going to do big business? Yes. Did any of us expect it to be far and away the biggest movie of the year? Absolutely not. It, again, doesn't hurt that the movie was better than it had any right to be (read our review here), but still, this release proved audiences will turn up in record-breaking numbers for the right movie, particularly a movie that doesn't have superheroes in it. It managed to provide a lot of hope for the future in that way. And yeah, Paramount made a king's ransom.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Lastly, we get one more reminder that mid-budget movies should not be ignored and, if anything, Hollywood should really look to do more in this arena instead of less. Case in point: "Where the Crawdads Sing," an adaptation of the hit novel of the same name, managed to sneakily become a downright huge hit for Sony right in the heart of the summer moviegoing season. It never once topped the box office and debuted with a decent $17 million, but it served as counterprogramming against the likes of "Thor: Love and Thunder" and "Minions: The Rise of Gru." After chugging along week after week, it piled up $90.2 million just in domestic ticket sales, with another $50 million coming internationally. All told, director Oliva Newman's drama, fronted by Daisy Edgar-Jones, pulled in $140.2 million against a very reasonable $24 million budget. Plus, Sony doesn't have a dedicated streaming service, so it made some dough licensing it to Netflix, where it also became a streaming hit, as well as reaping the benefits of VOD. A home run that never climbed higher than number three on the charts. That's the good stuff right there.