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.
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.