Q: I just had a friend tell me that "Paranormal Activity" is actually the most successful movie of all time. But that's not right, is it? I thought it was "Avatar" or something.

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Adam Thomlison / TV Media

It looks like your friend follows Information Is Beautiful on social media.

This company specializes in producing understandable and, yes, even beautiful charts and graphs about popular topics. It recently took on the movie biz, charting the biggest movies of all time, and it illustrated a fascinating fact: if you define "biggest" in relative terms — on return-on-investment as a percentage — then the humble 2007 horror flick "Paranormal Activity" beats everyone. By a lot.

That's partly a function of its success — it pulled in nearly $200 million, according to Box Office Mojo -- but mostly because it was incredibly cheap to make.

It cost just $15,000, thanks to its cast of unknowns and its found footage-style production. 

And so, expressed as a percentage, "Paranormal Activity" earned 1.3 million per cent of its budget back. "Avatar" (2009), the highest-grossing film of all time (raking in nearly $3 billion worldwide), can't compare to that — it earned back a mere 1,200 per cent of its budget.

This has long been the advantage of horror films. More than all other genres, their success is just based on the premise that, if you have a good, scary idea, it doesn't matter so much how well you execute it. And as every hungry writer living in (or, more likely, near) Hollywood will tell you, ideas are the cheap part of filmmaking. So horror movies are almost always going to be cheaper to make. The downside is they appeal to a smaller demographic, but if you're talking in percentages, that's OK.


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