10 Highest-Grossing Documentaries of All Time, Ranked


Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour broke box office records and has earned over $200 million globally. Arriving in the wake of the Barbenheimer phenomenon, the massive success of what many are calling one of the greatest concert-films ever has demonstrated once again that the movie theater is still alive. It also proves that documentaries can still make a ton of money, too.

The non-fiction format is usually a much harder sell, but films such as Super Size Me and the Jackass franchise have still on occasion been able to find enough of an audience to both make enormous profit and ingrain themselves in the cultural zeitgeist. Using The Numbers’ list of “All Time Worldwide Box Office for Documentary Movies,” here are the ten highest-grossing documentaries ever released.

10 ‘Deep Sea 3D’ (2006)

Worldwide Box Office: $105,635,685

image via IMAX Business Needs

Narrated by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, this 41-minute deep sea dive into the ocean’s depths showed that a standard theatrical runtime isn’t always needed to rake in the audience. Deep Sea 3D took full advantage of the IMAX experience to make people feel like they were underwater.

Directed by Howard Hall and featuring music by Danny Elfman and Deborah Lurie, this is a beautifully-shot short film that captures undersea life with serenity and wonder. It also made over one-hundred million dollars at the box-office, as it was successful both domestically and overseas.

Deep Sea 3d

Release Date
March 3, 2006

Howard Hall

Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet



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9 ‘Where Are We Going, Dad?’ (2014)

Worldwide Box Office: $112,370,000


Based on the Chinese reality show of the same name (which in turn is based on the South Korean reality show), Where Are We Going, Dad? showcases a group of fathers who bring their kids to the woods and compete in various challenges. They also gain an appreciation for wildlife along the way.

The elephants, zebras, giraffes, and wildebeests alone would be able to catch the eye of audiences, young and old. Chinese viewers with a love for the outdoors flocked to see this upbeat celebration of camping and father-child relationships.

8 ‘Earth’ (2007)

Worldwide Box Office: $116,773,317

image via BBC

Earth documents one year in the lives of various animal families in the wild, including polar bears, elephants, and whales. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, this beautiful depiction of nature was unsurprisingly produced by the BBC and Discovery Channel.

This documentary has six different versions, each with its own narrator, depending on its release location. For instance, the American version has none other than James Earl Jones, the British version has Sir Patrick Stewart, and the Japanese version has Ken Watanabe—and each apparently brought enough spirit to elevate the already magnificent images.


Release Date
April 22, 2007

Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield

James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Ulrich Tukur



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7 ‘Space Station’ (2002)

Worldwide Box Office: $126,513,186

image via IMAX

At 47 minutes long, this short documentary about the International Space Station was released in IMAX 3D and proved to be a truly immersive experience. Space Station was written, directed, edited, and produced by Toni Myers—who needed help from the astronauts and cosmonauts at the International Space Station to film themselves in space.

Literally out of this world, the movie was even more likely to succeed with Tom Cruise‘s narration. Space Station gave audiences the pleasure of watching a real rocket launch and witnessing what it’s like to work out in space. It represents not just the documentary form’s potential for box office success, but also the heights of human achievement attainable when nations work together.

Space Station

Release Date
April 17, 2002

Toni Myers

Tom Cruise, James Arnold, Michael J. Bloomfield, Robert D. Cabana, Leroy Chiao, Kenneth D. Cockrell



Watch on Fubo

6 ‘Everest’ (1998)

Worldwide Box Office: $127,990,128

image via MacGillivray Freeman Films

Another short documentary, Everest is basically a 44-minute-long account of how difficult and awe-inspiring it is to climb Mount Everest. A number of experienced climbers go about the processes of navigating one of the harshest terrains on the planet, which in itself is a dangerous prospect without the additional task of filming in IMAX along the way.

Liam Neeson was the narrator of this short Himalayan epic. Directed by David Breashears and Greg MacGillivray, Everest was in production during the 1996 disaster that Jon Krakauer wrote about in his bestselling book, Into Thin Air. This movie includes a phone call and photographs that correspond with Krakauer’s account of the tragic blizzard that captured the world’s attention.

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5 ‘March of the Penguins’ (2005)

Worldwide Box Office: $133,276,359

Image Via Buena Vista International France

Written and directed by biologist Luc Jacquet, March of the Penguins (originally titled La Marche de l’empereur) is a feature-length film about the treacherous journey that emperor penguins take in subfreezing temperatures to eventually mate and look after their extremely fragile offspring.

This timeless classic was narrated by Morgan Freeman for the United States’ release, no doubt adding some dramatic weight to an already semi-tragic adventure. Luc Jacquet spent over a year to capture the majesty, tenacity, and complexity of life for emperor penguins in the South Pole.

March of the Penguins

Release Date
January 26, 2005

Luc Jacquet

Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer, Jules Sitruk, Amitabh Bachchan, Gösta Ekman, Fiorello



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4 ‘Jackass 3D’ (2010)

Worldwide Box Office: $171,685,793

Image via Paramount Pictures

Directed by Jeff Tremaine, this 3D reality-comedy drew in an enormous audience that expected and received the same kinds of ridiculous pranks and shenanigans reminiscent of the first two Jackass movies. Steve-O, Johnny Knoxville, Wee Man, and more recognizable faces returned for what included getting charged by a bull and playing beehive tetherball.

Given the first two Jackass movies fall within the top 15 most financially successful documentaries of all time, the third accomplished a significant feat by surpassing them. It’s no surprise that more than two-thirds of the profits for Jackass 3D were from the domestic box-office, but this distinctly American movie still found enough of an international audience to make over $54 million in foreign markets.

Jackass 3D

Release Date
October 15, 2010

Jeff Tremaine

Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O, Spike Jonze, Chris Pontius



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3 ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ (2004)

Worldwide Box Office: $221,148,959

Fahrenheit 9_11 - 2004
Image via Dog Eat Dog Films

Political filmmaker Michael Moore wrote, directed, and starred in Fahrenheit 9/11, which criticized The United States’ invasion of Iraq. The title alludes to Ray Bradbury‘s sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, in which a flame needs to be 451 degrees to burn a book—suggesting that it took the mention of 9/11 to stoke enough fear in Americans for those in power to get away with starting an unjust war.

Winner of the Palme d’Or at 2004’s Cannes Film Festival and one of Michael Moore’s most regarded works, this film is a reminder that political activism and art are not mutually exclusive. Also, though this is an American film, the domestic box-office is only slightly more than half of its overall gross. Clearly this controversial indictment of the U.S. government and media had supporters both within and outside the country.

Fahrenheit 9/11

Release Date
June 25, 2004

Michael Moore

Ben Affleck, Stevie Wonder, George W. Bush, James Baker III, Richard Gephardt, Tom Daschle



Watch on Peacock

2 ‘Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets’ (1984)

Worldwide Box Office: $239,000,000

image via destination cinema

Keith Merrill directed this brief exploration of The Grand Canyon. Only 34 minutes long, this film nevertheless covers hundreds of years of human history specific to the area—from the indigenous tribes who dwelt there to European explorations to Major John Wesley Powell’s attempt to map the region.

Using actors to portray people who have long since died, Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets attempts to show what it must have been like to interact with this legendary canyon centuries ago. Most of its box-office success was made outside the U.S., which makes sense when you think about it. It’s harder to visit for those who don’t live here, so the movie’s the best they’ve got.

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1 ‘Michael Jackson’s This Is It’ (2009)

Worldwide Box Office: $252,091,016

Michael Jackson rehearsing for his last show ever in 'This is It'
Image via Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group

A concert can make a great movie, but this one showed that the prepping and rehearsals for a concert can be just as watchable. King of Pop Michael Jackson passed away before his This Is It tour began, which gave this documentary the weight of tragedy for audiences mourning around the world.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It gave fans an opportunity to see him perform one last time, which no doubt is attributed to the unprecedented box office numbers this documentary accrued upon its 2009 release. There is a lot of dancing, but here the viewer gets to witness the logic behind the moves as well.

Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT

Release Date
October 28, 2009

Kenny Ortega

Michael Jackson, Alex Al, Alexandra Apjarova, Nick Bass, Michael Bearden, Irina Brecher



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NEXT: ’10 Highest-Grossing Concert Movies of All Time, Ranked


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