The Biggest Memorial Day Movie Releases of All Time
For Hollywood, summer begins on the last Monday in May.
The true indicator that summer movie season has arrived has historically been one key holiday weekend: Memorial Day. The long weekend has become a launching pad for some of the biggest movies Hollywood has to offer—superhero features, animated family flicks, and sweeping action-adventure installments that set he tone for the rest of the blockbuster-filled summer. Here are the most successful films to open Memorial Day weekend, according to data from Box Office Mojo. So grab your popcorn and get ready for prequels, sequels, and threequels galore.
Backdraft (1991); $15.7 million
This Ron Howard-directed action drama centered on two firefighter brothers (played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) trying to take down a serial arsonist in Chicago. Its thrilling pyrotechnics not only got the film a visual effects Oscar nomination, but the movie also inspired a Backdraft special effects experience at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida.
Rocky III (1982); $16 million
This threequel brought us the Oscar-nominated original song “Eye of the Tiger”—and the film debut of Mr. T. It would go on to become the second most successful boxing film of all time—only to be topped by its sequel, Rocky IV (which also happened to release on a Memorial Day weekend).
Rambo III (1988); $16.7 million
Another threequel starring Sylvester Stallone, Rambo III focuses on John Rambo, Vietnam veteran turned vigilante. It broke records for being the most expensive film and most violent film of its time; it had a $63 million budget and more than 108 depicted deaths.
Enough (2002); $17.2 million
A departure from the romantic comedies that shot her to superstardom at the time, this Jennifer Lopez action thriller follows the triple-threat as Slim Hiller, a woman who seeks revenge on her abusive ex-husband.
Blended (2014); $17.7 million
The third film to pair Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore—after The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates—Blended is a comedy about two single parents stuck on an international vacation together after a bad blind date. The film made nearly $18 million its opening weekend, which is nothing to scoff at, particularly for a romantic comedy. But it pales in comparison to the nearly four dozen other films released on Memorial Day weekend on this list.
Shanghai Noon (2000); $19.6 million
Never forget that the beginning of the millennium had a film franchise set in the Wild West led by Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan. The unconventional action comedy, which blended in elements of both westerns and kung fu films, made nearly $20 million on Memorial Day weekend in 2000.
Cliffhanger (1993); $20.5 million
Sylvester Stallone is back at it again, this time with an original movie in which he plays a mountain ranger who is tricked into helping various groups of people try to find $100 million in cash that fell from a plane during a heist. The film made $20.5 million during Memorial Day weekend in 1993, which was good because it included the costliest aerial stunt to ever appear on film: A stuntman was paid $1 million to cross from one plane to another without any safety equipment.
Casper (1995); $22.1 million
An early comic book adaptation success story, this live action version of Harvey Comics character Casper the Friendly Ghost made more than $22 million at the box office. It also introduced many audience members to ‘90s heartthrob Devon Sawa.
Baywatch (2017); $23.1 million
Now widely considered one of the biggest bombs at the modern day box office, this rare misstep for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson only made about $23 million on Memorial Day weekend 2017. One silver lining for the film adaptation of the iconic ‘90s TV show may be that it won Zac Efron a Teen Choice award for Choice Movie Actor: Comedy.
Alien 3 (1992); $23.14 million
Did you know that David Fincher—the director behind Fight Club and The Social Network—made his directorial debut with Alien 3? Well, Fincher would prefer you didn’t. As he told The Guardian, “to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Ouch!
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002); $23.2 million
This Dreamworks animated movie about a wild stallion that refuses to be tamed made more than $23 million during Memorial Day weekend in 2002. With Matt Damon voicing the eponymous equine, Spirit is actually the fourth-most successful horse movie of all time.
Back to the Future Part III (1990); $23.7 million
Part III was the final film in the groundbreaking Back to the Future trilogy, placing Marty and Doc Brown in the Wild West. It had the second biggest opening weekend of the franchise, with nearly $24 million. Still, the 1990 movie was the least commercially successful Back to the Future film overall, failing to crack the $100 million mark set by its predecessors.
Crocodile Dundee II (1988); $24.5 million
This sequel to Crocodile Dundee sees the eponymous character played by Paul Hogan take his love Sue back to Australia to avoid some New York gangsters that are after her. Crocodile Dundee II‘s opening went on to become the biggest opening weekend of 1988.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); $25.2 million
The second film in the aforementioned Rambo franchise, Rambo: First Blood Part II, placed war veteran John Rambo back in the jungles of Vietnam. The film had the biggest opening weekend of 1985, and is an early screenplay credit for ultra-successful writer/director James Cameron (whom you may know for films like Titanic and Avatar).
Insomnia (2002); $26.1 million
Buried deep in the Christopher Nolan oeuvre is this crime drama that pairs Robert De Niro with Robin Williams to solve a murder in a town where the sun doesn’t set. It made more than half its $46 million production budget back in just four days by grossing more than $26 million during Memorial Day weekend 2002.
Poltergeist (2015); $26.3 million
A remake of the iconic 1982 haunted house film penned by Steven Spielberg, the 2015 Poltergeist had the best opening weekend of any of the four Poltergeist films, making more than $26 million during the holiday weekend.
Notting Hill (1999); $27.7 million
Often regarded as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, this film pairs a neurotic London bookstore owner with an audacious Hollywood actress, played by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts respectively. It made nearly $28 million its opening weekend in 1999, which still wasn’t enough to dethrone Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace from the top spot at the box office.
Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (1983); $30.5 million
Speaking of the Star Wars franchise, Return of the Jedi, which preceded The Phantom Menace and ended the original Star Wars trilogy, was both the top opening weekend and highest-grossing movie of 1983.
Beverly Hills Cop II (1987); $33 million
This sequel that brought fish-out-of-water Detroit cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) back to Beverly Hills to solve a near-fatal cop shooting had the highest-grossing opening weekend of 1987.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016); $33.5 million
One of Disney’s more recent box office bombs, Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to the live action Alice in Wonderland from 2010, made under $34 million its opening weekend in 2016. The opening weekend gross might not have even covered half of Johnny Depp’s salary for the film (he made nearly $64 million for the first Alice movie), making him Hollywood’s most overpaid actor for the second year in a row.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); $33.9 million
The second film released in the massively successful Indiana Jones franchise, this Harrison Ford action adventure had the most successful opening weekend of 1984. Still, Temple of Doom—which many forget is actually a prequel—made the least amount of money out of any Indiana Jones film.
Sex and the City 2 (2010); $36.8 million
Despite all the bad reviews surrounding the film’s existence—it has a 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—the TV adaptation sequel that brought Carrie Bradshaw and her three best friends to Abu Dhabi still managed to make about $34 million its opening weekend in 2010.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); $37 million
Like Sex and the City 2, this third entry in the Indiana Jones franchise doubles as a travelogue of the Middle East. Pairing Ford with Sean Connery as Jones’ father, Last Crusade became the highest-grossing movie worldwide of 1989.
The Flintstones (1994); $37.1 million
The 1994 The Flintstones movie was a live-action version of the famous 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon, starring John Goodman as Fred. It made more than $37 million its opening weekend—the second highest opening weekend gross of that year. (The first was Interview with the Vampire.)
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010); $37.8 million
The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia was, at best, viewed as ill-fitting and, at worst, downright offensive. The video game adaptation, which took place in the Middle East, made nearly $38 million its opening weekend in 2010, and actually went on to become the fourth most successful video game movie of all time. (The top three are Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Angry Birds Movie, and Rampage, though Detective Pikachu could dethrone any of them, any minute now.)
Tomorrowland (2015); $42.7 million
While other films based on Disney World attractions have fared much better at the box office, this 2015 sci-fi film starring George Clooney and directed by Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol) made less than $43 million its opening weekend, which was near half its overall gross but less than a quarter of its $190 million production budget.
Epic (2013); $42.8 million
Before she graced the new The Lion King with her vocal talent, Beyoncé voiced Queen Tara in this animated fantasy that grossed nearly $43 million on Memorial Day weekend 2013.
The Hangover Part III (2013); $50.2 million
The R-rated comedy franchise that started out as a surprise hit ended up failing to recapture the magic of the first film. But this closer to the trilogy still made more than $50 million its opening weekend 2013, which helped make it one of the most successful films set in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Terminator Salvation (2009); $51.9 million
The only Terminator film without Arnold Schwarzenegger in it, Salvation still managed to be the third highest-grossing film in the franchise. Still, the movie’s lasting legacy will most likely be the leaked audio of Christian Bale yelling a crew member. Eek!
Godzilla (1998); $55.7 million
While it is one of the more forgotten films in the long-running Godzilla franchise, this Americanized remake, starring Matthew Broderick and a computerized giant reptile, had the best opening weekend of 1998.
Mission: Impossible (1996); $56.8 million
The first entry in the impossibly successful Tom Cruise spy movie franchise, Mission: Impossible made nearly $57 million its opening weekend in 1996.
The Longest Yard (2005); $58.6 million
This Adam Sandler-led remake of Burt Reynolds’ iconic 1974 comedy centers on an incarcerated professional football quarterback who has to organize a football game with inmates versus guards. To this day, it’s the highest-grossing comedy remake ever made, as well as the second highest-grossing sports comedy (behind The Waterboy) and the third highest-grossing football movie (behind The Blind Side and, again, The Waterboy).
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011); $60.9 million
The sequel to the Dreamworks animated movie, which has Jack Black voicing a reluctant hero panda and Gary Oldman voicing a villainous peacock, was once the most successful film ever directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. (Superhero movie buffs can tell you that Patty Jenkins blew that all away with Wonder Woman in 2017.)
Madagascar (2005); $61 million
This Dreamworks animated movie also opened Memorial Day weekend and also centered on animals, but, sadly, featured no kung fu. Madagascar made $61 million over the holiday weekend in 2005.
Men in Black 3 (2012); $69.3 million
Released nearly a decade after the second Men in Black movie, this threequel made more than $69 million during Memorial Day weekend in 2012. Men In Black 3, along with the two MIB films that came before it, make up the top three sci-fi comedies ever made (the order of films’ released in the franchise is also the order of their box office successes).
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009); $70 million
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian had the best opening weekend of the three movies in the Night at the Museum franchise. The 2009 Ben Stiller vehicle has appearances by everyone from Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart to Bill Hader as General Custer.
Mission: Impossible II (2000); $70.8 million
This Mission: Impossible sequel, the first of many awesome installments to come, was directed by iconic Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo (Face/Off). It had the best opening weekend of 2000, and went on to become the highest-grossing movie worldwide that year.
Pearl Harbor (2001); $75.2 million
Considering how many action-packed sequels Michael Bay has made, it’s interesting to see this period piece as his only film to have one of the biggest Memorial Day weekends at the box office. Pearl Harbor became the highest-grossing plane movie ever made (beating out Top Gun), and the second highest-grossing WWII movie (beating out Captain America: The First Avenger).
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017); $78.5 million
While this fifth entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise notably added Oscar winner Javier Bardem as its villain, it still had the lowest opening weekend gross of any of the Pirates sequels, making nearly $79 million.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016); $79.8 million
Apocalypse is the third X-Men film in the rebooted cinematic universe (after First Class and Days of Future Past). And while its near $80 million gross puts it high among opening weekends that fall on Memorial Day, the 2016 film barely lands among the top 10 highest-grossing X-Men films of all time. And with a 47 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the most reviled, too.
Bruce Almighty (2003); $85.7 million
The only comedy to rank among the top 10 highest Memorial Day releases ever, the movie that sees Jim Carrey playing God made almost $86 million its opening weekend in 2003.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004); $85.8 million
An opening weekend gross of nearly $86 million would normally be massive, especially for an original movie released in 2004, but The Day After Tomorrow failed to debut at the top of the box office due to continued box office domination by Shrek 2 (which was in its second weekend at the time). This makes the global warming disaster film the second biggest opening weekend for a film that didn’t top the box office charts. (The first is Pixar’s Inside Out.)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); $90.1 million
The first sequel in the long-running Jurassic Park franchise, The Lost World actually broke the record for biggest opening weekend for a film ever when it was released in 1997. That might just be enough money to fix the damage the dinosaurs do to San Diego in the movie.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018); $103 million
While Solo had the fifth best opening weekend of any Star Wars movie, and is in the top 10 of this list, the 2018 film is still considered the franchise’s biggest flop. Part of the blame is on general Star Wars fatigue, and the rest is likely due to behind-the-scenes drama: Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were loudly, publicly fired and replaced by Hollywood vet Ron Howard.
The Hangover Part II (2011); $103.4 million
The Hangover Part II has the highest-grossing opening ever for an R-rated comedy. While the 2011 film was basically a rehash of the first movie—except based in Thailand instead of Vegas—it still made enough to warrant the aforementioned third installment.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014); $110.6 million
While the less successful X-Men: First Class breathed new air into the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past showed the franchise’s staying power with an opening weekend gross of almost $111 million. The 2014 superhero movie managed to cleanly tie all the X-Men movies together and leave room for more experimental X-Men movies, like Logan.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013); $117 million
After Fast Five really revitalized the franchise, 2013’s Fast & Furious 6 (original title: Furious 6) nitrous-boosted its way to the top of the box office with a $117 million opening weekend. It’d go on to become the third highest-grossing car movie of all time, losing out only to Pixar’s Cars, and, of course Furious 7, the final film starring beloved franchise lead Paul Walker.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); $122.9 million
X-Men: The Last Stand is a tricky film because, yes, it was the second biggest opening weekend of 2006, but it’s also the film that nearly killed the X-Men franchise. It took half a decade for the X-Men series to get going again after this botched adaptation of the famous “Dark Phoenix” comic book arc.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); $126.9 million
Here is another sequel that made a boatload of money without a lot of fanfare. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull made just under $127 million its opening weekend in 2008, pretty much quadrupling the opening weekends of the two other Indiana Jones sequels.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007); $139.8 million
The third Pirates of the Caribbean film had Depp return again as the iconic pirate Captain Jack Sparrow and became the third highest-grossing opening weekend of 2007 (behind Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third). By the end of its run, it’d be the highest-grossing movie worldwide of 2007. And for more huge summer blockbusters, check out The 20 Best Summer Movies of All Time.
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