With millions of fans around the world, it’s no surprise that the highest grossing movie franchises of all time have been around for many years. For as much as audiences and critics like to complain that Hollywood only makes sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchise films, it’s hard to ignore how these properties remain the most lucrative part of cinema.
This is nothing new but it has become particularly notable over the past two decades, especially in the age of Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and much more. While many studios have tried to kick-start new franchises, many of which never got off the ground, those who have managed to do so have reaped the benefits.
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This has proven especially profitable at a time when heavy focus is put on luring in international audiences, particularly in China where interest in various franchises has helped them to continue on even as domestic grosses dwindle. To illustrate the immense might of franchise film-making, we’re looking at the top 15 highest grossing franchises at the box office. (Note: all domestic box office numbers have been adjusted for ticket price inflation.)
15. Mission: Impossible
- Number of movies: 6
- Domestic total: $1,572,860,309
- Franchise Total: $3,570,379,575
- Per Film Average: $595,063,263
- Highest Grossing Film: Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($791,017,452)
It’s been over 20 years since Tom Cruise took on the role of Ethan Hunt, an agent of the Impossible Missions Force and protagonist in Brian De Palma’s remake of the classic 1960s spy television series. At the time, Cruise was the biggest star on the planet and an actor who had already proven his action mettle in films like Top Gun and Days of Thunder. But Mission: Impossible took things to a whole new level, allowing Cruise to do his own stunts, which evolved in increasingly creative and death-defying ways.
Since then, various directors have taken on the franchise – including John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie – each of them putting their own stamp on the material. But the true genius of the franchise is in how it has allowed itself to wholeheartedly embrace Tom Cruise as an action star and drama actor. As a result, Mission: Impossible has only gotten more popular and more critically celebrated. The most recent film, Fallout, is already its highest grossing entry, and it currently has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, another peak for the franchise.
14. Despicable Me
- Number of movies: 4
- Domestic total: $1,314,229,789
- Franchise Total: $3,708,073,676
- Per Film Average: $927,018,419
- Highest Grossing Film: Minions ($1,159,398,397)
Universal and Illumination Entertainment struck an animation goldmine when their quirky parody of superheroes became an instant audience favorite. From a mid-sized budget of $69 million, the first Despicable Me film grossed over $546 million in 2010, making it the ninth highest grossing movie of that year. Three years later, the sequel would make over $970 million worldwide, grossing more money than Thor: The Dark World, Man of Steel, Monsters University, and Fast and Furious 6. Both the third film and the spinoff, Minions, soared past $1 billion at the box office. Illumination have presented the most formidable competition in animation to Disney since the heyday of Dreamworks, and that success can be traced back to this franchise.
13. DC Extended Universe
- Number of movies: 6
- Domestic total: $1,642,412,824
- Franchise Total: $3,768,298,638
- Per Film Average: $753,659,728
- Highest Grossing Film: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($873,634,919)
For as much of a critical mauling as the DCEU has taken over the years, its fan base has remained loyal and helped to keep the franchise in the list of highest grossing titles. The DCEU is currently resetting itself going into its new releases in 2019 and beyond, but past titles like Wonder Woman have managed to keep the franchise afloat by grossing over $821 million worldwide. So, despite a blockbuster movie like Justice League under-performing at the worldwide box office, DC Films can still count Suicide Squad as a financial success, which is why WB is pursuing multiple spinoffs.
- Number of movies: 5
- Domestic total: $1,709,542,157
- Franchise Total: $4,385,136,428
- Per Film Average: $730,856,071
- Highest Grossing Film: Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($1,123,794,079)
Michael Bay’s take on the nostalgic favorites of many a person’s childhood has inspired everything from bafflement to confusion, to outright fury. Yet for every proclamation that Bay’s Transformers are the worst films ever made, there’s another box office record broken in its tracks. The franchise may never have had a Rotten Tomatoes rating above 60% (the series average is 29%) but that never stopped it from making billions of dollars worldwide. Even as the series’ popularity wanes in North America, international audiences kept its numbers strong. That didn’t hold for the fifth film, The Last Knight, which became the second lowest grossing of the five films, but Paramount Pictures will be hoping for a return to the good old days with the release of the franchise’s first spinoff, Bumblebee.
11. Pirates of the Caribbean
- Number of movies: 5
- Domestic total: $1,882,688,192
- Franchise Total: $4,524,439,761
- Per Film Average: $904,887,952
- Highest Grossing Film: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($1,066,179,725)
When Disney put Pirates of the Caribbean into production, the film was a massive risk. It was a PG-13 live-action blockbuster, something the studio hadn’t done before and it was a significant departure from the Disney Renaissance they were experiencing at the time. Plus, it was based on a theme park attraction from the 1960s. Even Disney’s own executives were convinced it would flop, but instead it kick-started a new era of live-action success at the company. It arguably influenced them to make big-money acquisitions like Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm, and to this day, it remains Disney’s sturdiest franchise that they started on their own. While the most recent film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, under-performed compared to its predecessors, and the Johnny Depp elephant in the room has yet to be fully dealt with, there’s a reason Pirates endures and rumors of a reboot should surprise nobody.
Page 2 of 3: Highest Grossing Franchises: #10-6
10. Jurassic Park
- Number of movies: 5
- Domestic total: $2,655,165,094
- Franchise Total: $4,994,016,979
- Per Film Average: $998,803,396
- Highest Grossing Film: Jurassic World ($1,671,713,208)
Author Michael Crichton’s 1990 book Jurassic Park was an unstoppable literary juggernaut that sold millions of copies and stayed on the best-seller lists for many months. The film rights were sold to Steven Spielberg for a hefty $1.5 million, but it would prove a wise investment, as Spielberg’s adaptation of Jurassic Park became the highest grossing film of 1993, making close to $1 billion. After two middling sequels and diminishing commercial returns, the franchise was considered dead until Colin Trevorrow helped to revive it in 2015. Jurassic World made over $1 billion, as did its sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. A third sequel, Jurassic World 3, is planned for 2021.
- Number of movies: 10
- Domestic total: $3,319,196,368
- Franchise Total: $4,995,812,576
- Per Film Average: $333,054,172
- Highest Grossing Film: The Dark Knight Rises ($1,084,939,099)
The caped crusader of Gotham remains one of the most enduring figures in comic book lore, and his film appearances are as varied as they are profitable. Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman, was the second highest grossing film of its year, but the true money making saga came when Christopher Nolan birthed the Dark Knight trilogy. On top of earning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar win, The Dark Knight was the first Batman film to gross over $1 billion worldwide. Since then, Batman has become part of the DC Extended Universe with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, and is set to be subject in another solo film directed by Matt Reeves, currently titled The Batman.
8. The Fast and the Furious
- Number of movies: 8
- Domestic total: $1,791,630,791
- Franchise Total: $5,134,895,344
- Per Film Average: $641,861,918
- Highest Grossing Film: Furious 7 ($1,516,045,911)
When a Vin Diesel-starring action movie about undercover cops and car hijackers premiered in 2001, few could have predicted that it would go on to spawn seven sequels and become an internationally beloved franchise. The Fast and the Furious films have continued to up the ante, increase the vehicular carnage, and make stars of its growing ensemble. Even Helen Mirren and Oscar winner Charlize Theron wanted in on the fun. The franchise remains especially popular in China, where the eighth film, The Fate of the Furious, remains the sixth highest grossing movie in the country and the highest-grossing American title, ahead of Avengers: Infinity War. The series is set to end with its tenth film but a spinoff centered on Dwayne Johnson’s character is set for release in 2019, titled Hobbs & Shaw.
- Number of movies: 7
- Domestic total: $2,453,771,335
- Franchise Total: $5,694,030,050
- Per Film Average: $813,432,864
- Highest Grossing Film: Spider-Man 3 ($890,871,626)
The wonderful world of Peter Parker and friends has been a big-screen favorite since Sam Raimi’s movie came out in 2002, after close to 25 years of studio delays, multiple scripts, and studio battles. The Spider-Man trilogy made just under $2.5 billion worldwide, and since the property remains the biggest Marvel title that Sony Pictures have the rights to, a reboot was inevitable. The Amazing Spider-Man duology saw less financial success, but thanks to a partnership with Marvel Studios, a new age of Peter Parker was born and the box office glory followed with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sony Pictures has also struck gold with the success of Venom, which is currently the fifth highest grossing film of 2018 with over $824 million internationally. That number will be highly encouraging to Sony, who not only plan to make more Spider-Man movies but are moving forward with expanding their Spidey-verse to include multiple films centered on Peter’s many foes. A Morbius the Living Vampire movie is set to begin production soon and a Venom sequel seems all but inevitable.
- Number of movies: 14
- Domestic total: $2,768,772,460
- Franchise Total: $5,733,103,763
- Per Film Average: $521,191,251
- Highest Grossing Film: Deadpool ($783,112,979)
The X-Men franchise has had a curious evolution since debuting in 2000 (where it made just under $300 million worldwide): there was the original trilogy, then a prequel series that involved multiple universes and saw the young and old Professor Xs and Magnetos meet, but there were also three Wolverine movies, and now two Deadpool movies. Call them sequels or prequels, or reboots, but as a unified franchise, X-Men‘s might is enduring. The fate of this series remains unknown as 20th Century Fox’s acquisition by The Walt Disney Company approaches. Will the X-Men join the MCU or will they remain their own independent entity? Whatever the case, it guarantees box office success.
Page 3 of 3: Highest Grossing Franchises: #5-1
- Number of movies: 6
- Domestic total: $2,481,740,422
- Franchise Total: $5,884,488,087
- Per Film Average: $840,641,155
- Highest Grossing Film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($1,120,237,002)
When a little-known New Zealand filmmaker whose last Hollywood effort flopped was announced as the director of the long-awaited adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, many predicted that the series would be dead on arrival. The books were too epic, the scale too vast, the cast too large, and the story too fantastical to translate to cinema. Those fears were soon alleviated when Peter Jackson’s trilogy swept the Oscars and made New Line Cinema billions of dollars. It was inevitable from that moment on that an adaptation of The Hobbit would be produced. Regardless of what audiences think about the quality of the three Hobbit films, the box office grosses speak for themselves.
4. James Bond
- Number of movies: 24
- Domestic total: $5,669,971,185
- Franchise Total: $7,040,275,645
- Per Film Average: $270,779,833
- Highest Grossing Film: Skyfall ($1,108,561,013)
The exploits of 007 make for easily the longest-running franchise on this list, having kicked off in 1962 with Dr. No. Over the decades, James Bond has changed actors, fought new threats, deviated from the original books by Ian Fleming, and even modernized to a degree. The new era of Bond brought on by Daniel Craig rejuvenated the franchise for the blockbuster age and gave it its greatest success with Skyfall. Now, as fans wait for Cary Fukunaga to take over directorial duties and for Craig to hang up his tuxedo for the last time in Bond 25, it seems that Bond will be around for a very long time.
3. The Wizarding World/Harry Potter
- Number of movies: 10
- Domestic total: $3,560,023,014
- Franchise Total: $9,058,895,110
- Per Film Average: $905,889,511
- Highest Grossing Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 ($1,341,511,219)
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga remains one of the biggest selling literary series of all time, as well as an indomitable pop culture juggernaut. That success carried over to the films with absolute ease, thanks to savvy marketing and an endlessly devoted fan base. Of the 10 films that have been made in what is known as the Wizarding World (eight Harry Potter films and two Fantastic Beasts films), nine of them have been in the top 10 highest grossing films of their year of release. However, while a further three Fantastic Beasts films have been planned, with the most recent one, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, under-performing at the box office, it remains to be seen if the franchise will reach 13 entries.
2. Star Wars
- Number of movies: 11
- Domestic total: $7,413,826,232
- Franchise Total: $9,299,479,675
- Per Film Average: $840,154,491
- Highest Grossing Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2,068,223,624)
George Lucas’ Star Wars, a sci-fi homage to the retro adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, heralded a new age of blockbuster cinema that has defined the industry’s onus for over 40 years. Even when the films were critical disasters and borderline jokes within the fandom, they made massive amounts of money. Now, under the ownership of Disney, Star Wars has seen a new rebirth as both a critically celebrated saga and an internationally popular franchise, at a time when such films dominate the landscape. Given how responsible Star Wars is for much of the current state of blockbuster cinema, it’s only right that the franchise remains one of the biggest features in that landscape. And that includes divisive installments like Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
1. Marvel Cinematic Universe
- Number of movies: 20
- Domestic total: $7,337,561,713
- Franchise Total: $17,455,564,691
- Per Film Average: $876,414,385
- Highest Grossing Film: Avengers: Infinity War ($2,046,909,636)
The might of Marvel over the past decade cannot be underestimated. In a relatively short amount of time, the studio have reinvented the franchise game, made the expanded universe model the most coveted storytelling mold in entertainment, and caused a seismic shift in how Hollywood does business – both domestically and internationally. Twenty movies in half as many years is a feat unto itself, but for each of them to now be guaranteed to make at least half a billion dollars, with Ant-Man and the Wasp considered an “under-performing” title because it only made $622 million is a whole new level of power. In a financially tempestuous time where the international box office has seen its grosses dip, the MCU may be the one true guaranteed money maker of the bunch. It’s no wonder Avengers: Infinity War immediately became the fourth highest grossing movie of all time.
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