Warner Bros. had very little confidence in the film when they were getting ready to release it on December 26, 1973, just after Christmas. In part, the studio felt strongly that they were going to get an X rating, which would have killed its commercial prospects. “I never thought we’d get an R,” William Friedkin said in that same THR piece from 2015. “Even Warner Bros. expected an X rating, which is why they pre-booked it in only 26 theaters for six months.”
With such a small initial rollout, it truly was a slow-build situation for “The Exorcist.” But 50 years ago, movies didn’t live or die as much by opening weekend. Audiences eventually caught on, and Warner Bros. realized they had something — over time, the film expanded into more and more theaters and kept making more and more money. In its initial run alone, Friedkin’s horrific tale of a girl possessed grossed $193 million domestically. That’s to say nothing of overseas audiences, even though the international box office wasn’t as big of a factor back then.
And that was just the beginning, as Friedkin’s original director’s cut eventually made its way out into the world in 2000, with a big theatrical re-release. This cut famously included the Regan spider-walking down the stairs scene. Twenty-seven years after it first hit theaters, “The Exorcist” was once again a hit, taking in $112 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful re-releases ever. All told, the film has made a staggering $441 million worldwide to date. Or, for a little more context, more than 36 times the original production budget. No amount of clever studio accounting can hide that much profit. Not to mention the (admittedly less profitable) sequels that have followed, including the upcoming “The Exorcist: Believer.”