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The Most Profitable Movie Franchises of All Time


The current threshold to qualify as a “top-ten” movie franchise is effectively about $2.5 billion in global box office ticket sales.

The movie industry grosses billions of dollars per year in box office sales. The amount of money invested on the top movie franchises is overwhelming, but the largest films have yielded significant returns for the studios and production companies.

Some movie franchises are poised to get even bigger as more prequels and sequels are being released in 2011 and 2012 to add to their value. With these new box office sales, many film franchises will either challenge or take a spot among the top ten movie franchises on this list.

For instance, there is the totally inexplicable social phenomenon known as Twilight, which grossed about $1.8 billion in sales in its first three films alone. The two-part Breaking Dawn installments are set to be released in November 2011 and in November 2012. These will surely push the franchise’s value even higher.

Similarly, the three Ice Age films have grossed about $1.92 billion. The fourth installment, coming in July 2012, could make it another worthy contender for the top-grossing franchises.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth in the MI franchise, will hit theaters in December 2011. So far, the three previous movies have grossed about $1.4 billion.

See the trailer for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol:

Star Trek’s franchise has eleven films, with $1.3 billion in box office sales. This puts it far from contention as a top ten movie franchise, but the success of the “reboot,” along with a new sequel in the summer of 2012, could propel the franchise up in the ranking.

Likewise, the Iron Man series, which has grossed $1.2 billion with the first two films, could be propelled much higher with the upcoming Avengers and Iron Man films.

See the new Avengers trailer:

James Cameron’s Titanic from 1997 has grossed $1.843 billion in global ticket sales, but the film is about to get new life with a 3-D release in 2012 (because, you know, everyone wanted to see the ship sink in 3-D).

Some blockbuster movie franchises such as The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Indiana Jones, X-Men, and a dozen or so others are simply honorable mentions.

The current threshold to qualify as a “top-ten” movie franchise is effectively about $2.5 billion in global box office ticket sales. This does not include DVD sales, rental fees, comics, books, toys, memorabilia, and other movie merchandise.

The coming wave of sequels and prequels will raise that threshold much higher. Almost all sales data came from Box Office Mojo and some international sales data on older films came from IMDB.

[Editor's note: The data used for this list is based on tickets sales. The data does not account for the fact that ticket prices have risen precipitously in the last 40 years. We realize that the amount it cost to take a friend to see Harry Potter in 2011 could have also paid for a large family to see Star Wars in 1977. This list is based solely on bottom line earnings, not popularity or influence.]

10. Spider-Man

Ticket sales: $2.494 billion

Spider-Man has had three films so far. The fourth, a re-start of the series titled “The Amazing Spider-Man,” is set to hit theaters in July 2012 with a new set of actors, including a new Spider-Man.

The three prior films had gross sales in box offices globally of almost $2.5 billion. The new trailer: a mutated spider bites a kid named Peter Parker and he goes on to put on tights and a mask to fight evil and greed. Sound familiar? Same story except it like they've thrown in a good amount of teenage angst for good measure.

See The Amazing Spider-man trailer:

9. Batman

Ticket sales: $2.531 billion

The Batman franchise has had several leading “Batmen,” but the 2008 Dark Knight release with Christian Bale and Heath Ledger brought in a whopping $1 billion of the franchise’s $2.53 billion in sales for all six movies.

The newest installment, “The Dark Knight Rises,” is set to be released in July 2012, and it is listed as being the ending to the Dark Knight theme.

It is amazing how many times this series can be rebooted with some new features and characters without the audience ever tiring of the same hero.

Why's that?

Because he’s Batman.

See the new The Dark Knight Rises trailer:

8. Transformers

Ticket sales: $2.667 billion

At first, Transformers seemed as if it might be suited for children only, but then the action series managed to draw in moviegoers of all ages. It has had three installments with Shia LaBeouf as the leading character.

[Editor’s note: Most notable, however, is the fact that Transformers proved once and for all that it is possible to make movies that lack both dialogue and actors and still make billions of dollars.]

7. Avatar

Ticket sales: $2.78 billion

Avatar was a record-breaker on too many fronts to count. Unlike the other franchises on this list, Avatar generated $2.78 billion in global box office sales by itself. [Editor’s note: apparently, audiences were starved for a CGI mash-up of Dances with Wolves and Fern Gully. Who knew?]

Avatar only qualifies to be on this list because James Cameron has announced that two more additions will be released in the coming years. The first film was such a big financial success that the series is almost a shoe-in to be ranked far higher than No.7 once the sequels are released.

6. The Lord of the Rings

Ticket sales: $2.908 billion

The Lord of the Rings franchise released three movies in the last decade, not counting the low-budget animated films of prior years. The three films generated over $2.9 billion in sales.

The two new installments of the “The Hobbit,” to be released in late 2012 and late 2013, are about to breathe new life into the Tolkien books-based franchise.

Granted, the prequels are being called The Hobbit but make no mistake: this is a continuation of  Lord of the Rings franchise and that $2.9 billion number will get much bigger. (Imagine the add-on sales just for re-releasing the first three films in theaters in the months before The Hobbit.)

5. Shrek

Ticket sales: $2.954 billion

The four Shrek films, released from 2001 to 2010, tally up to $2.954 billion in sales. The offshoot Puss in Boots is too new to add into the Shrek franchise value for now.

While no new installments have been announced, the Shrek franchise just seems too profitable to kick to the curb entirely. Perhaps DreamWorks doesn’t want to rush it or press it.

4. Pirates of the Caribbean

Ticket sales: $3.72 billion

Pirates of the Caribbean was supposed to be a three-part series, but a fourth installment was released in May 2011. Now, there appears to be a fifth movie coming in 2013 and a sixth in 2014.

Because this franchise has been so profitable, Johnny Depp may be an old man by the time he gets to walk away from playing Jack Sparrow. So far, the four-part series has racked up $3.72 billion in global box office ticket sales.

3. (or 2.) Star Wars

Ticket sales: $4.2 billion

Star Wars seems almost penalized because, as mentioned in the above, the 1970s and 1980s ticket prices were far lower than today.

Still, $4.2 billion and growing after six films (not counting animation) is not bad at all. In fact, it's a testament to the franchises popularity that it outdoes many other films on this list, despite the fact that ticket prices were far lower when A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were released.

Expect that number to grow once the fourth film, Episode 1, is released in a 3-D version February 2012, according to IMDB. That will only drive sales higher for Fox and LucasFilms.

This film franchise has reached just about every culture on the planet now and everyone in the world knows what a lightsaber is.

2. (or 3.) James Bond

Ticket sales: $5.03 billion

Whether you like Aston Martins, shaken martinis, the most luxurious casinos or beach settings in the world, everyone knows James Bond. The James Bond movies have not only helped to start many successful careers, but they introduced most of us to the “glamorous” world of espionage. The franchise is now about 23 films and growing.

Daniel Craig is set to return as 007 in 2012 with a film dubbed Skyfall. Craig is the latest in a long list of actors that played Mr. Bond, including Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan.

There are some large discrepancies on ticket sales because of so many films being very old now, but combining sources between IMDB and Box Office Mojo put the global Bond ticket sales of almost a half-century at just over $5 billion.

We should note that in 2010 CNBC listed it as $3.55 billion. It’s possible our combined figures go further back on an international basis.

1. Harry Potter

Ticket sales: $7.66 billion

Harry Potter was a profitable franchise because of interest from both children and adults. It is the current movie franchise king after eight films.

The film series should easily maintain its leading position for quite some time considering its $7.66 billion in global combined movie sales. For all practical purposes, the series is over . . . for now.

Just don’t be shocked when you hear about spin-off franchises in the future.

(Jon C. Ogg/Becket Adams—24/7 Wall St./The Blaze)

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