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The Top 20 Grossing Documentaries of All-Time


Documentaries are incredible; they tell us true stories about a journey or event. There are so many different kinds, from humorous to profound, cute to horrific, it's not hard to find a documentary for everyone. If you're not a huge documentary buff, this will surprise you. Some are more obscure and don't get a lot of notice, but others make more money than most of your favorite movies. Whether you prefer the deepest secrets of outer space, watching people hurt themselves or learning more about your favorite musicians, these twenty documentaries banked ridiculous sums worldwide.

20. Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert 3D (2008) - $65.28 Million

Miley Cyrus, daughter of the controversially sexy country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, has always been popular. However, at the height of her Disney fame, the Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus concert was one of the most massive Disney has ever thrown. The Jonas Brothers, who were also among Disney's most popular acts opened up for her. While the documentary follows the young star, it gives audiences a new view of what it's like to be a Disney character and a famous teen. Naturally, young audiences everywhere went crazy for it, landing this documentary in the top twenty of all time.

19. Hubble 3D (2010) - $68 Million

The juxtaposition of danger and celestial glamour make this 3D documentary one of the most breathtaking we've ever seen. Hubble 3D follows astronauts who undertook a mission in 2009 to make repairs to Earth's most precious telescope. The views alone would be worthy of a documentary on their own. When you add the drama and potentially life-threatening circumstances of a human crew, it's easily one of our favorite documentaries ever.

18. Li Hai Le, Wo De Guo/My Amazing Country/Amazing China (2018) - $72.5 Million

The story of Li Hai Le, Wo De Guo is a strange one. The actual content of the documentary is about Chinas accomplishments over five years, and it's quite inspiring to see. However, there are some other noteworthy facts about this documentary. First, according to the trailer, it's the second highest-grossing Chinese Documentary, yet we can't find any evidence of a higher grossing documentary from China.

Secondly, the film was released March 2nd, 2018 and on April 19th the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China requested what amounted to a full recall and asked theaters to stop showing it. No explanation has ever been given for this strange act. We can only imagine how much more accessible and profitable the propaganda film/documentary would have become if they'd not done so. Even though this offering only reached number eighteen on this list, it is perhaps the strangest film to break the top twenty.

17. Jackass Number Two (2006) - $72.78 Million

Bigger, nuttier and grosser than the original, Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O and their crew of crazy characters produced two documentaries about their antics. As it turns out, fans loved seeing them do wild stunts and sickening things. In fact, they loved it so much the documentary made almost eighty million dollars. That's a lot of stunts and a lot of weird and disgusting scenes to film, but it paid off for them in the end. They all made their careers on the silly and strange.

16. Justin Beiber: Never Say Never (2011) - $73 Million

His fans are a legion, his songs are known around the world, and millions of screaming audience members come to see his sold-out shows each year. This documentary about a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden follows the vocal star as he gets ready to thrill his fans once again. Never Say Never is one of his most famous songs to date and it's no surprise that he played to packed crowds wherever he went.

15. Dolphins (2000) - $84.4 Million

Pierce Brosnan narrates this delightful dolphin documentary. Learn about their playful nature and their language. Listen to them talk to each other and organize their hunts for food and their games. Discover their brilliance and ability to stun fish with their voices. The complex lives and social structures of these water mammals are beyond anything you ever anticipated. Dolphins may be the smartest creatures on Earth (other than humans), and you can swim along and find out their secrets when you watch this amusing and enlightening documentary.

14. Oceans (2010) - $86.787 Million

Filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud set out to show everyone what the world's oceans held for us, and they succeeded in spectacular fashion. Audiences of this film are treated to the stunning depths of our watery world and the panoply of life they hold. Sea creatures are strange and brilliantly colored, holding both our eye and our curiosity long after they've swum off camera. More than just beauty, this film shows entire ecosystems interacting. It can be stark and harsh compared to our comfortable city lives. Nevertheless, it keeps us on the edge of our seats wanting more.

13. Deep-Sea 3D (2006) - $88.151 Million

With narrators like Johnny Depp and Kate Winslett, it's not hard to see how people were drawn to this documentary. When you add the mysterious depths of the seas and all the strange life to be found, people were instantly enthralled. Though we live on a world seventy percent covered by water, most of us never see more than the surface of the seas. Looking into the secret world beneath is a treat for fans and casual observers alike.

12. Mysteries of Egypt (1998) - $90 Million

The ancient Egyptians were brilliant architects with some bizarre beliefs. They excelled at post-mortem preservation (making mummies). Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians built megalithic structures with such precision it's hard to imagine how it was done without modern technology. This documentary was the first real insight many of us ever had into that vast and intriguing culture. Generations of archaeologists and history buffs can trace their fascination back to this documentary.

11. Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1998) - $100 Million

From polar bears to wolves and whales, the beauty and splendor of Alaska have always been a subject of fascination to people. Charlton Heston loaned his incredible voice to this documentary as the narrator, and it elevated it to the next level. Watching the vast expanses of untamed nature is always a delight, and this film, created for Imax was one of our favorites when we were younger. Space and the oceans may be our true final frontiers, but Alaska is a place you can explore with little more than a plane ticket and the right clothing.

10. Antarctica (1991) - $100 Million

The frozen south pole is as fascinating to us as the secrets of the ocean and stars. In John Weiley's 1991 documentary, we got a good look at frozen life. Antarctica shows the animals and the scientists who are studying them in one of the most extreme climates on earth. From labs to penguins, we were enthralled by this look into a mysterious world of ice and snow.

9. Disney Nature: Earth (2009) - $116,773,317 Million

Disney has made many of the top-grossing documentaries. Earth, which shows us a myriad of beautiful places and creatures from all around our world, is one in a long and storied line of Disney Documentaries. Partly because they are a huge filmmaker overall, partly because they have helped shape the interests of children and adults worldwide. Mostly because they know good entertainment, Disney is able to find our sense of wonder and tap directly into it.

8. Jackass 3D (2010) - $117.22 Million

Not all our documentaries are deep or cerebral. Likewise, they aren't all about beauty, art, music, nature, or the struggles of war. In fact, Johnny Knoxville and his crew of miscreants are pretty much as far as you can get from a traditional documentary while still making one at all. Along with Bam Margera, Steve-O, Wee Man, and others, Jackass would say they're pulling pranks. Realistically, however, they're more often just signing up for various injuries in the most spectacular ways possible. People loved watching their Hijinks so much that both Jackass documentaries made this list.

7. The Dream Is Alive (1985) - $125.9 Million

It's no secret we, collectively, are obsessed with exploring and with space. In The Dream is Alive, you get to see life from the viewpoint of fourteen different astronauts who each helped film a part of four trips to space onboard a shuttle. Spacewalks, repairs, cramped quarters, and all. Viewers everywhere were delighted by this private view of life in space, with its complexities and strangeness. Doubtless, the view of our world from two hundred and fifty miles above has helped raise a generation of people who are looking to the stars more than ever before and dreaming of weightless travel to other worlds.

6. Space Station 3D (2002) - $126.51 Million

Perhaps no event since the Moon landing has captured the hearts of people who look to the stars as well as this documentary. It shows the Kenedy Space Center astronauts as they train and depart to go work on completing the International Space Station. The chance to see groups from opposite ends of the globe come together to make something so spectacular is truly worthy of documentation. We're thrilled they decided to share that journey with the world.

5. Everest (1998) - $127.99 Million

Mount Everest is the tallest in the world. Intrepid explorers have been trying to scale it for years. Some succeed, but others find only a frozen death. Everest shows the true story of a team who triumphed in the wake of tragedy after their companions perished attempting to make it to the top. It's sad, heartwarming, and a testament to the spirit of endurance humans can put forth under pressure.

4. The March of the Penguins (2005) - $133.276 Million

It's hard not to love adorable waddly little penguins. Sadly, with global warming, climate change, and the incursion of man, their secret feathery world has been changing. To help bring awareness to penguin lives, this documentary took a look at their lives and mating rituals. Seeing the Emperor penguin fathers tenderly carry their eggs as the mothers went to sea allowed the whole world a look at a lifestyle that couldn't be more different from what we know, and yet resounded with us as familiar because of the family bond.

3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) - $221.148 Million

The Twin Towers incident was one that rocked the world. Anywhere there was a television, newspaper stand or computer hooked to the internet. People saw it live and replayed over and over. The well, known documentarian and social justice warrior Michael Moore used humor to take a deeper look at the administration who were in charge when 9/11 happened, and fans went gaga over it. He openly questioned the Bush Administration in ways only fringe conspiracy theorists had dared to speak aloud before.

2. Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets - (1984) $239 Million

The Grand Canyon is one of the world's great mysteries. It's no surprise tourists flock to see it every year in droves. The tiny river that has cut a channel in the earth so deep it can take more than a day to walk down to it from the cliffs above has plenty of secrets to share.

1. Michael Jackson: This Is It (2009) - $252 Million

It comes as no surprise that the internationally beloved and controversial King of Pop is also the King of Documentaries. Michael Jackson may have been an American singer, but he was an international superstar. His Black or White music video was one of the most expensive ever made at $6.9 million in adjusted production costs. The story of his life and musical career may have had less special effects, but the world treasured it more.

Final Thoughts

Documentaries are windows into a world most of us will never see, not an imaginary story, but something deeper and more true. We can explore the extent of our known universe, or discover how other people and even animals live. The best part is that we can do all this safely from our couch or a theater seat, without changing who we are, and without even having to pay travel expenses. Which of these top twenty documentaries do you want to see the most? Leave us a comment and let us know why.

Dana Hanson

Written by Dana Hanson

Dana has extensive professional writing experience including technical and report writing, informational articles, persuasive articles, contrast and comparison, grant applications, and advertisement. She also enjoys creative writing, content writing on nearly any topic (particularly business and lifestyle), because as a lifelong learner, she loves to do research and possess a high skill level in this area. Her academic degrees include AA social Sci/BA English/MEd Adult Ed & Community & Human Resource Development and ABD in PhD studies in Indust & Org Psychology.

Read more posts by Dana Hanson

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