The ten highest grossing documentaries in US history

Dec. 14, 2021

Surviving in the American film industry often depends on how much money a movie makes through the box office. Because in the country of Hollywood, sales are the measure of a type of success, Guidedoc presents the five highest-grossing documentaries in history.

How are a film's domestic grosses calculated?

To choose the most successful documentaries at the U.S. box office in history, we took into account only the performance of each title in its theatrical commercial screenings.

To be as fair as possible, for some older titles the amounts have been updated to take into account the cumulative inflation since their release.

Although there are other economic revenues related to the distribution of these documentaries, such as DVD sales, and sales to TV channels, TVOD and SVOD platforms, we believe it is important to focus on what really differentiates cinema from television: the big screen experience.

And in the case of documentaries, the following ten titles have managed to compete with the big blockbusters of the major North American movie studios. This is just one example of how documentary cinema continues to make its way among the genres most appreciated by viewers.

What are the highest-grossing documentaries in the United States of all time?

  • Grand Canyon: The Hidden

  • Farenheit 9/11

  • Jackass 3D

  • Space Station

  • Everest

  • March Of The Pinguins

  • Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

  • Jackass: Number Two

  • Michael Jackson’s This Is It

  • Obama´s America

Obama´s America


Barak Obama giving a speech


Somehow it is surprising that the tenth position of this list is occupied by this documentary that borders on the political pamphlet, with very little truthfulness and a lot of passion to wear down a public figure.

The film is based on the book by the conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza, who co-directs the film, and focuses on vilifying Barack Obama when he was seeking re-election in 2012. The documentary managed to be shown in 2,017 cinemas throughout the world and raised $ 33,449,086 with just a 2.5 million budget.


Michael Jackson’s This Is It 


Michael Jackson dancing on stage in the documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It 


Surprised that a documentary about Michael Jackson released a few months after his death is not at number 1 on the list? We are shocked too. 

The film about the making of what would have been the biggest concert tour in the history of music - and Jackson's last one - made $ 72,091,016 despite being the most exhibited film on the list, with a presence in 3,481 theatres around the world.


Jackass: Number Two 


Johnny Knoxville confronts a bull with his eyes covered




With box office earnings of more than 72,778,712, the second film spin-off of MTV's famous TV series made it into the top ten most successful documentary titles in U.S. history. 

Released in September 2006, this film loaded with action, comedy and crazy stunts became the biggest domestic September day in the US box office.  


Justin Bieber: Never Say Never


Justin Bieber singing in the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never


Another young promise of pop music did overcome the "king of pop" for just a few thousand dollars.

This 3-D filmed concert by Canadian singer Justin Bieber released in 2011 reached $ 73,013,910 with screenings in 3,118 cinemas around the world and is positioned as the highest-grossing musical documentary in history.

 March Of The Penguins


 A herd of penguins in the documentary March Of The Penguins


In what could be the biggest surprise of the list, this National Geographic documentary managed to get out of the limits of television to be crowned as one of the most remembered documentaries in American popular culture.

In the best style of the wild animals programs of the famous television network, the film follows a large pack of Penguins on their journey to an inhospitable land to mate and have their young.

An epic tale about the sacrifices of living beings to continue life on earth. The documentary raised $ 77,437,223 in 2,506 cinemas around the world.




Two climbers on Mount Everest in Nepal


At only 45 minutes long and shot in the rare 70mm wide format, this documentary released in 1998 about a group of climbers on an adventure to conquer Mount Everest, Nepal, was the first major box office success in IMAX theaters across the United States

Taking into account cumulative inflation, the film reached an estimated $87,178,599. 

Narrated by Liam Neelson, the film directed by Greg MacGillivray and David Breashears remains to this day the highest-grossing IMAX 2D title worldwide.


Space Station


An Astronaut working in the International Space Station


Known for being the first IMAX 3D documentary filmed off planet Earth, this film narrated by Tom Cruise documents the daily life at the International Space Station

Accounting for inflation, the film would have accumulated 93,231,060 today in the domestic box office alone since its release in April 2002.


Jackass 3D 


Three actos of the documentary Jackass 3D scream


Following the success of its previous installments, the third Jackass movie opened in thousands of 3D theaters in the United States in October 2010.

Among the records it broke was staying in the top three of the Biggest Domestic Weekend that month, which was a milestone for a non-fiction film. After its last screening, it grossed $117,229,692. 


Fahrenheit 9/11


Michael Moore walking in his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11


It could not have been otherwise. In the middle of a convulsive beginning of the century for American society, this political documentary by the controversial Michael Moore on the implications of the Bush family in the attack on the New York World Trade Center is the second highest-grossing documentary of all times.

The winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival achieved the exorbitant figure - for a documentary - of $119,194,771 with presence in 2,011 cinemas around the world.


The Dream Is Alive


An Astronaut in space in the documentary The Dream Is Alive


Released shortly before the Space Chuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, this documentary is the most successful on the list. Calculated to date, this IMAX film has grossed an impressive $143,942,851 at the box office since its release in June 1985.

Focusing on NASA's Space Shuttle program, it is the second U.S. space-themed title on the list. This is undoubtedly one of the benefits of the documentary genre: to bring us as close as possible to the mysteries of worlds we do not yet know. 

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