A movie franchise is a collection of movies that are linked, either by title, characters, or fictional universe, and is the dream of every studio. Franchise film’s popularity has risen over the last 10 years, pushing the boundaries of how many sequels a film can have. The record currently stands at 26! The idea of familiar characters allows us to form bonds and feel nostalgic looking back on older instalments. For example, the Harry Potter generation are still waiting for their Hogwarts letters! After sitting down a top franchise director, we concluded that no matter how hard a production company tries, they don’t decide whether a film will spawn sequels, the audience does. In this rundown of the greatest and highest grossing movie franchises, we will explore by category. We will also discuss what makes a franchise great and how they became the most notable movie franchises of all time.
To start off our list of movie franchises, we will look at some of the longest-running franchises. Let’s check out how they paved the way before the modern era of cinematic universes began.
The Godzilla franchise came from humble beginnings. It came from men in monster suits and model cities in the 1930s to $170,000,000 CGI blockbusters in the present day. Godzilla is also the franchise mentioned in the introduction as the film series with the most sequels (26). This includes classics such as Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994), Godzilla Vs MechaGodzilla (1974) and my personal favourite Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). Jokes aside, the Godzilla franchise has featured some major blockbusters over the years. These movies have made a whopping box office total of $2,131,090,785 over their 65+ year lifespan!
The Carry On franchise is the second longest-running British film franchise on this list. Its rapid distribution made it one of the most popular movie franchises in Britain, with 29 films in 21 years (1958-1979). Its bawdy double-entendres helped the extra-low budget features find major success. Despite this, the leading actors were never paid more than £5000!
The world’s most famous special agent James Bond has been repeatedly reborn over the years, to the tune of $7.04 billion at the box office. The franchise has a massive multi-media appeal, with each movie’s theme tune receiving critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations. The high stakes action films have passed through the hands of 11 filmmakers over the years. These filmmakers have opted more for the ever-successful Bond house style rather than putting their own stamp on the series. Fun fact (unless you’re James Bond), 3/4 of the women he has romanced have tried to kill him. How’s that for the kiss of death?
There is something spectacular about intergalactic adventures that ignites a different sense of escapism to so many other genres. So, here are some of the most enigmatic space adventure movie franchises!
We all know this one! Star Wars does not have infinite films like the aforementioned franchises do. However, the impact of each movie has been unavoidably important in the cinema world. This may well have been the first movie franchise to round up and create an infinitely devoted fanbase. In a 2019 study by Amy Watson, 70% of men and 51% of women on average in the USA described themselves as fans of Star Wars. Over four decades on from its first release in 1977, we would say that’s pretty impressive. Its films have grossed over $10 billion, making characters like Luke, Leia, and Yoda household names – the latter of which was very nearly played by an (to quote George Lucas) “adorable monkey wearing a mask and carrying a cane”.
Ridley Scott’s ominous and tense 1979 space-horror Alien has become an all-time classic. The same sadly can’t be said about its 3 sequels and 2 prequels (with the exception of Aliens in 1986). Despite this, the movie franchise has continued to make high budget space-operas to the present day. Still, Alien shows no sign of slowing! Filling the less family-friendly spot in this section, the Alien films have been an irrefutable scare-fest series for years.
Star Trek defined the term “cult classic”, with fans arguably more devoted than Star Wars fans. Now, that’s saying something! The film franchise (born from a TV series) can’t help but be compared to Star Wars. Despite its competitor grossing over six times as much, the cultural impacts of Star Trek are huge. I mean, look at “Beam me up Scotty” around every corner in modern media, and kids everywhere trying to do the famous Spock hand sign.
Franchises are money-making machines, as we know. Kids franchises, when done right, can put that machine into overdrive. These need to be made with care, and have that special something that children and families keep coming back to.
Toy Story has that special something. This franchise is joint for the fewest films on this list (4), but is arguably the most critically acclaimed of them all. Toy Story has not just connected with the hearts of millions around the world, but also, has broken major ground with animation technology, with Toy Story (1995) being the first-ever fully computer-animated feature film. Toy Story has grossed an estimated $3 billion worldwide.
A more recent entry to this list, Gru and his minions have conquered the world (as I’m sure the lovably evil protagonist would have wanted). The four films of Despicable Me have grossed $3.7 billion, making it the highest-grossing animated franchise in history, with two more slated on the way. The movies two directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud not only are in charge of filmmaking but also are the voices of every single one of the minions. Impressive!
The success of the muppets can be expressed mostly through the huge widespread adoration of the puppeteered pets. No fact can express this more than the bizarre and wonderful truth that Kermit the Frog is the only Amphibious animal/puppet to ever testify in front of US congress (2008, for animal preservation awareness). While not the most financially successful on this list, The Muppets have proved their worth time and time again with their consistency, repeatedly receiving high reviews from both critics and fans alike.
When thinking of the word franchise in the present day, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the planet-saving friends that dominate the big screen today. The heroes below are the fastest, strongest and most impressive on the big screen today.
12 years, 23 films, $22 billion. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is the highest-grossing box office franchise of all time. Love them or hate them, Marvel is doing something right. The stable of superhero stars is a powerhouse, breaking its own records over and over again. The astronomical-scale action epic Avengers: Endgame is now the highest-grossing film of all time, with six of the top 20 highest all-time grossing films also being from the Marvel cinematic universe.
Superman has been around in cinemas for the longest on this list. Although not a feature (90 minute) film, the debut of the hero in cinema was in 1948 with Superman. He has gone on to star in cinema 10 more times. Superman is an interesting entry onto this list, as despite being maybe the most famous superhero, his adventures as a cinematic franchise only play a smaller role into the full fictional character and brand of Superman. This has, over the years, been a (mostly) masterful showing in multimedia marketing ventures.
The superhero with no superpowers, Batman has proven that drastic reinvention can save a franchise from the brink. From Christopher Nolan to Tim Burton, Batman may also be one of the few franchises to have handed the reins to auteur directors who really put their stamp, from gritty to camp, respectively. The Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, is also the only character ever in a superhero film to receive Academy Awards, with Heath Ledger as best supporting actor in 2009 and Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor in 2019. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight himself hasn’t been so lucky.
The classic action blockbuster has shown itself, over the years, to be as indestructible as its main protagonists. While previous franchises mentioned which can fit into this section (Bond, Marvel) – these films are unique in the sense that they have upped the stakes sequel after sequel to great success, with their action packed sequences raking in audiences all around the globe.
Conceptualised in 2000, the late Paul Walker was asked to create his dream action movie. His response? “Days of Thunder mashed up with Donnie Brasco”. Combining the themes of family and loyalty of Donnie Brasco with the high octane racing of Days of Thunder, a high stakes film was exactly what they got in 2001 with The Fast and The Furious. That one question to Walker saw 9 films made, raking in over 5 billion dollars in the process. Despite Walker’s tragic death in 2013, the franchise has not taken its foot off the gas, with it seemingly immortalised now in the action film genre.
Speaking of Days of Thunder, Mission Impossible has a unique draw. This is not just as an action franchise, but also as a franchise in general – Tom Cruise. Not just in the form of his superstardom either, but that of his dedication to the franchise. Doing all of his own stunts has provided publicity for this six film franchise, despite numerous well publicised injuries over the years. Cruise’s reported earnings of $285 million in total, so not the worst insurance in the world!
As difficult as it is for movie lovers to swallow, Micheal Bay’s Transformers franchise is a money-making machine (pun intended). It has proven that being a successful franchise isn’t about telling the most compelling story. Sometimes, it’s about big explosions and even bigger robots. The Transformers films have grossed $4.84 billion, but not without a little cost. The 875 minutes of screentime has cost the company a reported $1.1 billion to make, meaning that each minute of action cost the studio roughly $1,257,142.
The fantasy and adventure genres could be those with the least bounds on this list, with the cinematic franchises here venturing into grounds that were truly previously untrodden. Here are our final picks for great fantasy stories.
There are not many other words to describe the Lord of the Rings franchise other than… epic. This series of 3 sequels and 3 prequels follow a father and son Hobbits Frodo and Bilbo on their respective journeys to forbidden lands and beyond. The Lord of the Rings, as with the other fantasy projects on this list, saw an incredible orchestral undertaking in Howard Shore’s score with the Fellowship of the Ring’s 71 minute soundtrack. Speaking of records, the Lord of the Rings also has the most ever Academy Award victories (18) for a 6 part franchise.
Speaking of music, movie themes don’t get more iconic than Indiana Jones. Who hasn’t hummed the theme-song to themselves or a friend while preparing for something that is almost certainly about to go wrong? Indiana Jones is another low movie-count entry on this list, with only four movies in the franchise. However, fans will be happy to know that a fifth is slated to be on the way in 2022 under the watchful eye of Disney. Rumour has it that the whole crew, including Harrison Ford, Spielberg, George Lucas and John Williams are coming back together!
We have reached the final entry, and one of the biggest and best movie franchises of all time. We’ve all heard the story of J.K Rowling scribbling down the plot of “the boy who lived”. I know I have thought about how that napkin turned into the 3rd highest grossing franchise of all time. It also made $9.1 billion dollars, inspired 6 theme park lands, a Broadway show and $8 billion in merchandise. Oh, and a few books too. Harry Potter has charm, from the characters to the setting to the creatures. It oozes originality and ultimately, that is what has made this film franchise one of the greatest of all time.
So, there we have it – our picks for the biggest movie franchises of all time. Later in our conversation, the franchise director mentioned that a key element of a great franchise is fatigue and finding the right release pace. However, there is no set recipe for this. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe may release 4 films a year, whereas Toy Story releases one roughly every 10 years. However, both movie franchises have found astronomical success.
The conversation also took us to another core idea in filmmaking. We discussed how the characters are at the heart of a franchise, and how important they are. Even down to casting, the way their stories are told gives audiences nostalgia when returning to the big screen. Ultimately, movie franchises are not going anywhere, and nor are the ones that you love. Franchises will always be right back for another adventure that you can join them on!
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