'American Sniper' Tops 'Mockingjay' At The Box Office, But How Many Non-Franchise Films Have Done The Same Since 1975?

In 1975, the business and experience of cinema were turned on their heads by what we now identify as the very first big screen blockbuster: Jaws. Topping the annual box office and spawning a collection of follow-up films, Jaws was in so many ways a precursor to the movie world of the present.

Nowadays, it's an anomaly when a movie free of franchise implications can win a year's box office. Such a phenomenon occurred in the form of the true story of Iraq War solider and sniper Chris Kyle: American Sniper recently became the highest grossing film released in 2014.

Going back through the past 40 years (since Steven Spielberg's benchmark shark attack picture), how many other non-franchise top grossers can we find?

Image: Warner Bros.

1976: 'Rocky'

Already we’re starting out with what is only a technical exception to the norm! Smack dab between Jaws and Star Wars, the Best Picture-winning underdog drama Rocky swept the American box office for the year 1976.

Though the film was conceived and released as a solo venture, it was the dawn of this new age of franchise cinema that led to four more movies over the next 14 years, one in 2006, and one presently on the way.

Image: United Artists

1978: 'Grease'

Another retroactive disqualification, but one that deserves credit for earning the top box office position while still being understood as a one-time outing. The John Travolta-led vehicle is also the last live action musical to earn the highest grossing spot for its year.

Image: Paramount Pictures

1979: 'Kramer vs. Kramer'

A Best Picture winner, a bona fide adult drama (and a nonviolent one to boot), and a wholly unfranchise-able piece of material, Kramer vs. Kramer represents in its box office success an era of moviegoing tragically long gone.

Image: Columbia Pictures

1982: 'E.T. the Extra Terrestrial'

A bit more in the vein of what we now consider to be a typical moneymaker, the family friendly sci-fi adventure E.T. is nonetheless distinct from today’s lot in its rigid self-containment. (But hey, who needs an E.T. sequel when we’ve got MAC and Me?)

Image: Universal Pictures

1986: 'Top Gun'

Although they’ve been talking about a second Top Gun movie for years now, the campy pop culture dynamo stands almost 30 years after release as a one time venture. Not quite the spectacle that was E.T., nor the meaty dish that was Kramer vs. Kramer, Top Gun stands as one of the strangest top performers in annual box office history.

Image: Paramount Pictures

1987: 'Three Men and a Baby'

A directorial project of the great Leonard Nimoy and the last live action comedy to earn this box office superlative, Three Men and a Baby is perhaps the most archaic notion on the list. Sweet, soft, simple, and sophisticated (even when silly). Can you imagine a movie this low-key beating out today’s superhero slate?

Image: Buena Vista Pictures

1988: 'Rain Man'

A likewise rare occurrence today is the fiscal splendor of adult-directed dramas. While we can count the likes of American Sniper in this category, Rain Man is an even more special example. A road trip story about two brothers, one an Autistic savant, learning in varying ways to appreciate one another is hardly the sort of thing that’d earn a top ticket-sales position today.

Image: United Artists

1994: 'Forrest Gump'

A strange combination of the old, personal, adult-directed stories (Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man) and Hollywood’s accelerating love affair with “spectacle,” the sprawling story of Forrest Gump makes it a fascinating marker of the ’90s as a transitive era in the movie industry’s vision.

Image: Paramount Pictures

1997: 'Titanic'

The final Best Picture winner on the list (after Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man, and Forrest Gump), Titanic pushes even further from the humanity of the ’80s toward the big, wide blockbuster mentality of the decade yet to come… but still clings tight to that old thoroughfare of romance!

Image: Paramount Pictures

1998: 'Saving Private Ryan'

Finally, the last independent property — that is to say, not a franchise starter, a sequel, or a remake of any kind — to take the top box office spot before American Sniper… and, tellingly, another war film. It’s also worth noting that Steven Spielberg, the director who opened the world to the blockbuster phenomenon, lays claim to the final film to represent standalone adult-directed box office smashes.

Image: DreamWorks Pictures