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James Cameron Movies Ranked By How Much They Made At The Box Office

In his time as a filmmaker, James Cameron's directorial efforts have earned more than $6.35 billion at the worldwide box office (via The Numbers). While a little over $5 billion of that comes from just two movies, that massive sum of cash shows just how many hits Cameron has helmed in over 40 years of filmmaking. Cameron's movies, by and large, are projects that resonate across the globe — not just as crowd-pleasers, but as must-see events. Ambition is the name of the game for this auteur, and it has propelled him to glorious box office heights — and even toward directing unorthodox projects like a pair of IMAX documentaries.

Breaking down lowest-to-highest grossing James Cameron movies at the worldwide box office, it's clear that not even Cameron can deliver nonstop hits since he's had a handful of box office misses. But predominately, his filmography is littered with historic box office performers that defied expectations to become all-time classics. Intriguingly, it isn't just Cameron's name that gets people into the theater, as titles ranging from "Aliens" to "Titanic" had widely differing reasons for resonating with moviegoers. Whatever led to their eventual box office glory, the biggest hits in James Cameron's career showcase why this director is always on people's radar and his movies have had such a lasting influence on the broader culture. Here's the list of Cameron's feature-length directorial efforts, ranked by how much they made at the box office.

10. Piranha II: The Spawning

Everyone has to start somewhere with their career. Nobody begins as an A-lister, and you've often got to work from the bottom to reach the top — just look at James Cameron. Today, he's known as an auteur who constantly pushes the technological boundaries of what movies can do. But back in the early '80s, he was just a guy tasked with directing a cheap sequel to the Joe Dante horror movie "Piranha." The resulting film was "Piranha II: The Spawning," and it proved to be an utter nightmare for Cameron to work on. Aside from focusing on the ocean, there's little in this that would make it seem like a James Cameron movie.

Despite being a sequel, "Piranha II: The Spawning" didn't receive much attention from audiences. In fact, the feature had such a minimal presence theatrically that there are no recorded box office figures for it. Ironically, Cameron, whose modern films would shatter all conceivable box office records, debuted as a filmmaker on a movie that never made a single ripple at the box office. Eventually, Cameron would find his way to more prolific works as a director — ones that would attract enough audiences to make their box office figures global news. However, none of these subsequent offerings would deliver flying fish like "Piranha II: The Spawning," so it has that going for it.

9. Aliens of the Deep

In the general consciousness, there's a perception that James Cameron spent the 12 years between "Titanic" and "Avatar" basically in hiding (via The Times). After producing films regularly from the start of the 1980s all the way up to 1997, Cameron was suddenly AWOL in the mainstream film scene. Indeed, Cameron was no longer producing big-budget narrative films that got lots of attention at the Academy Awards. But he wasn't totally eschewing further opportunities to direct movies. In the period between "Titanic" and "Avatar," he directed a pair of IMAX documentaries that took audiences into the farthest reaches of the ocean, and the second of these was "Aliens of the Deep."

If the title of this feature doesn't ring a bell, it may be because it never played in more than 27 theaters in its North American theatrical release — a testament to the smaller number of IMAX auditoriums that existed in this era (via The Hollywood Reporter). Even with such a low theater count, "Aliens of the Deep" managed to gross $12.7 million worldwide — $8.9 million of which came from its North American run. That solid haul can be attributed to the film playing in a handful of theaters for nearly three years, acting as a showcase of sorts for IMAX 3D technology. Even when he was flying under the radar in terms of major releases, James Cameron was still delivering movies that were performing quite nicely at the box office, and "Aliens of the Deep" is a testament to that.

8. Ghosts of the Abyss

"Avatar" may be the most famous instance of James Cameron embracing digital 3D filmmaking, but it was not his first time helming a movie that used this technology. That honor would go to the IMAX 3D documentary "Ghosts of the Abyss," which combined many of Cameron's fascinations at once: 3D filmmaking, the wreck of the Titanic, and underwater exploration. The fact that this was a documentary limited to just IMAX auditoriums meant that "Ghosts of the Abyss" never had a prayer of hitting the box office heights of James Cameron's narrative works. However, it still produced some strong box office results in its lengthy theatrical run — similar to "Aliens of the Deep."

Though it never played in more than 97 North American theaters, "Ghosts of the Abyss" still made more than $17 million domestically and over $28.7 million worldwide. Its domestic run stretched on for well over two years after its theatrical debut, a common runtime mirrored and even dwarfed by other IMAX documentaries such as "Hubble 3D." The appeal of seeing the wreckage and other undersea wonders in IMAX 3D through the filmmaking of James Cameron was an incredibly enticing prospect for moviegoers, and the success of "Ghost of the Abyss" also offered a tease for the kind of box office numbers that James Cameron would go on to make with a non-documentary 3D feature like "Avatar."

7. The Abyss

The box office stories for most James Cameron movies are quite similar. The director takes on a project that seems impossible to pull off, and manages to soar under pressure, delivering a historically lucrative blockbuster in the process. A rare exception to this, though, was "The Abyss." This 1989 feature is the one time a costly James Cameron movie didn't make a major profit at the box office — and that's despite the motion picture delivering the kind of cutting-edge visual effects and spectacle that audiences have come to expect from the director.

In its original worldwide box office run, "The Abyss" grossed over $54.2 million on a $70 million budget — nowhere near enough to become profitable. The problem here was mainly due to that oversized budget, and it would've taken a miraculous box office run to guarantee profitability. Cameron was able to secure that kind of box office performance for later titles like "Titanic" and "Avatar," but he couldn't make that magic strike on "The Abyss." Everyone's got their box office misfire, and for Cameron, that came in the form of a trip to the murky ocean in "The Abyss."

6. The Terminator

While it wasn't technically his first feature film directorial credit, "The Terminator" is arguably where it all began for James Cameron. His first original creation that he co-wrote and directed, "The Terminator" reflected Cameron's sensibilities as an artist and kicked off a franchise that would endure for decades afterward. It also started a trend of Cameron movies turning into a license to print money at the box office.

In its worldwide box office run, "The Terminator" grossed $78 million — an outstanding accomplishment given its $6.4 million budget. Stacked up against the other biggest movies of 1984, "The Terminator" did not top all other wide releases in the year. However, it was the third-biggest R-rated movie of the year worldwide, only getting outgrossed by "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Police Academy." There's no question that future films in this franchise and other James Cameron directorial efforts would leave this one in the dust, but the success of "The Terminator" was still unbelievably important for the career of James Cameron as well as the film's leading man, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

5. Aliens

James Cameron did not have an easy time making "Aliens" (per IGN), with the future "king of the world" in constant combat with the crew and struggling to earn their respect. Combining this with the problems related to executing some deeply complicated practical effects, "Aliens" was far from a picnic for those involved in it. If there was a saving grace for Cameron and everyone who worked on "Aliens," though, it was when the film was released. While it was a battle to get Cameron's vision for "Aliens" realized, audiences turned out in droves to see what a sequel to 1979's "Alien" looked like.

In its worldwide run, "Aliens" amassed over $183.3 million from moviegoers — an outstanding gross that put the movie well into profitability given its $17 million budget. It was also on par with the $184.6 million worldwide haul of the original "Alien" from seven years prior. Though it had been born out of immense conflict, the final cut of "Aliens" was a rollicking and scary adventure that generated the kind of word-of-mouth studios dream about (via Los Angeles Times). "Aliens" wouldn't be the last James Cameron movie plagued by on-set problems, but it also wouldn't be the last box office hit from this filmmaker either.

4. True Lies

By 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bona fide movie star and box office draw, having come a long way from "The Terminator" — one of his first leading man vehicles. His box office prowess would get another boost with the 1994 James Cameron movie "True Lies," which paired the action star with Jamie Lee Curtis. While Cameron has become famous for epic movies like "Titanic" and "Avatar," "True Lies" was more of a romp — albeit one with a record-shattering budget — with lots of comedy in addition to the requisite shootouts and explosions. It didn't quite add up to a transcendent cinematic experience, but it was enough to ensure that audiences showed up to the theater to check out what Cameron and Schwarzenegger had concocted this time around.

In its worldwide box office run, "True Lies" grossed $365.3 million, including $146.2 million in North America alone. Even with a gargantuan (at the time) $100 million budget to contend with, "True Lies" was an extremely profitable enterprise, and the movie hit all the buttons people want out of a summertime blockbuster. Sometimes you have to change the game to be lucrative, but other times, you can just be the newest Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron movie to get the job done.

3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

"The Terminator" had been a box office hit in 1984, but in the years since its release, its esteem had grown considerably in the public eye. It didn't hurt that both director James Cameron and leading man Arnold Schwarzenegger had grown even more famous since then, which helped to put even more eyeballs on it. When the sequel finally arrived in 1991 — and even considering all the pre-release hype — nobody could've predicted just how big "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" would be at the box office.

When "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" debuted in July 1991, it immediately exploded at the box office. Its massive initial figures were credited with jump-starting the summer 1991 box office landscape (via The New York Times), which had been fraught with disappointments up to that point. "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" was far from finished when its opening weekend wrapped up, though, and it would eventually secure a staggering $515.3 million worldwide, well beyond the $78 million worldwide gross of "The Terminator." On top of everything else it accomplished, "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" was also by far the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history at the worldwide box office at the time of its release, a title it would hang onto until "The Matrix Reloaded" in 2003.

2. Titanic

Though it's now known as a glowing success, it cannot be stressed enough how much it seemed like "Titanic" was doomed to fail before its theatrical release. With a budget that had ballooned to $200 million during a tumultuous production — a record-shattering price tag for a movie in the late '90s — "Titanic" was making headlines with serious doubts over its ability to make a profit (via AP News). The feature was seen as a boondoggle for many reasons, including its lengthy runtime and the seemingly ominous decision to delay it from its original summer 1997 date to a December 1997 launchpad (via The New York Times). Nothing was going right for "Titanic" until it opened in theaters. 

The initial domestic opening weekend numbers for "Titanic" were solid (per Forbes) but not extraordinary. This all changed in the weeks that followed. "Titanic" had word-of-mouth that kept it in movie theaters for months, with the feature topping the domestic box office through April 1998. "Titanic" would become the highest-grossing movie of all time in North America with a $600 million gross and the first motion picture to exceed $1 billion worldwide thanks to a final global haul of $1.8 billion (via Guinness World Records). Further theatrical re-releases would eventually take "Titanic" to over $2 billion. It is incredible to think that "Titanic" had once been written off as a surefire miss, but decades later, there's no questioning its status as a box office behemoth.

1. Avatar

Much like "Titanic," "Avatar" was a source of mockery before its release. Everybody got in their jabs about how the movie looked like "Dances with Wolves" but with blue cat people (via Forbes). Even with Cameron's track record, it still seemed like doubt was everywhere that the largely digital world of Pandora would be something that captivated audiences. Of course, it wouldn't take long before "Avatar" proved itself to be a mighty box office performer that would outgross even the other record-shattering James Cameron movies from the past.

In its first three days playing in North America, "Avatar" secured the largest domestic December opening weekend in history (via Box Office Mojo). That alone was an impressive feat, but where "Avatar" really began to soar as a box office titan was in the weeks afterward (via Los Angeles Times). Small week-to-week drops meant that "Avatar" was constantly drawing in moviegoers, who were enthralled by its technological and emotional wonders. It wouldn't be long before all that financial stamina ensured that "Avatar" went straight into the history books. A little over a month into its theatrical run. "Avatar" dethroned fellow James Cameron movie "Titanic" for the title of the biggest movie in history both in North America and at the global box office (via The New York Times), with the latter total coming in at a massive $2.9 billion sum. With "Avatar," James Cameron once again used spectacle to dominate the box office like few other filmmakers in history — only time will tell if the sequels will manage to do the same.