Answer: Star Wars
Outside of the dazzling short films showcased in IMAX theaters (like those that take you in flashy helicopter rides over uncharted wilderness or even into space), short films aren’t typically very profitable. Even when they do turn a decent profit, they often took a decent chunk of change to make—you don’t exactly throw together a 30-minute tour of the Amazon jungle with an old camcorder and some props from your garage—so the profit ratio is skewed heavily because of production costs.
That wasn’t the case with 1978’s Hardware Wars. The parody short film, written and directed by Ernie Fosselius and produced with the help of Michael Wiese, was strung together with a shoestring budget of $8,000.
They made the most of the tiny budget by, very tongue-in-cheek, using household objects as props, inside jokes that poked fun at both Star Wars fandom and American culture, and hired unknown actors to play the various roles.
The film went on to be obscenely successful, all things considered, and not only won over 15 first-place film festival awards, but George Lucas himself said, in a 1999 interview, that it was his favorite Star Wars parody of all time.
One of its biggest successes, and key to the topic of our trivia today, however, is how much the film grossed. At the box office, it pulled in a cool million dollars for a profit of $992,000 and a return-on-investment of a staggering 12,400 percent—making it the most profitable short film, in terms of profit-ratio, of all time.
To put that into perspective, the film it was parodying, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, cost $11,000,000 to film and grossed $775,400,000 at the box office (a pretty fantastic 7,049 percent return on investment). To hit the same box office ROI that Hardware Wars had, though? The original Star Wars film would have needed to pull down $1,364,000,000 in ticket sales. Maybe they should have used an iron for a space ship and a vacuum cleaner for a robot like the Hardware Wars folks did.