Blockbuster movie franchises have raised the bar for profitability in Hollywood – with certain series pulling in multi-billion dollar returns. In spite of mostly negative reviews, and skepticism from series fans, Transformer movies remain some of the most reliable money-makers in Hollywood - joined by countless young adult adaptations, comic book films, and kid-friendly animated movie sequels, among others.
However, while it’s no surprise that established IPs like The Avengers or Harry Potter could pull in record-breaking numbers, what about the films that came out of nowhere, with small budgets, bad reviews, or a niche setup, but managed to strike a chord with audiences – and become some of the most successful series in movie history? In an industry that's increasingly dependent on tentpole popcorn movies, where studios and pundits often have a very clear idea of how a film will perform in theaters weeks ahead of release, box office Cinderella stories have become less frequent.
For that reason, we took a look at the most profitable film series (NOT standalone movies) in Hollywood history - and selected 10 of the Most Surprisingly Profitable Movie Franchises.
NOTE: Because we are looking at worldwide box office sales (where available), the following figures are not adjusted for inflation (and do not reflect the cost of marketing) - meaning that readers should keep in mind the release date and larger context for each entry. Rather than comparing/analyzing box office sales within (or outside) the list, the post was written to cast light on surprisingly profitable franchises and the reasons for their success.
The Fast and the Furious
Back in 2001, Universal Pictures premiered The Fast and the Furious – a high-octane drama that explored the seedy life of illegal street racing. Thanks to likable leads Paul Walker and Vin Diesel, along with exciting car stunts, the original Fast and Furious was a success – pulling in $363 million at the worldwide box office. The film (and its first two sequels) placed heavy emphasis on car culture and high-performance modification - reflective of an increased interest in illegal street racing during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
To that end, marketing for the first three films featured the tag lines: "Live life 1/4 mile at a time," "How fast do you like it?", as well as "Speed Needs No Translation," respectively - until the series took a dramatic shift from street racing drama to over-the-top automotive heist action. The change in formula from nitro-powered speeding to automotive stunt action nearly doubled box office returns with Fast Five reaching $550 million and Fast & Furious 6 collecting $788.7 million worldwide - for a grand total of $2.3 billion (so far).
The tagline for Furious 7 reflects just how far the franchise storyline has come ("Vengeance Hits Home") while, on the other hand, trailers for the series' seventh installment depict some of the most outrageous car-centric stunts in Hollywood history (jumping a Ferrari between skyscrapers, for example). The Fast and Furious series might have been a little slow out the gate but, with at least two more films planned for production, Universal's racing-action franchise is speeding toward a pole position as one of the most profitable franchises in movie history.
Armed with just a clever setup and cast of mostly unproven leading men, including Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, director Todd Phillips surprised audiences with a memorable one-off comedy misadventure in The Hangover – resulting in $467 million in global box office ticket sales (not to mention a whole new definition for the term "Wolfpack").
Without question, The Hangover was rich in hilarious situations as well as cameos but where Phillips succeeded, plenty of similarly high-concept comedies fall by the wayside with little attention and underwhelming box office returns. Thanks to the bankable drug-induced amnesia comedy formula, Phillips returned to the series again in 2011 (to the tune of $586 million worldwide) and again in 2013 (adding another $362 million to the franchise gross) - though, one by one, audiences began to view The Hangover sequels as paint-by-numbers iteration on a far superior original.
Nevertheless, even though the third movie was the least successful of the series, proving it might be time to give The Hangover a break, Warner Bros. still made off with a grand total of $1.4 billion from the franchise - and while Phillips currently has no plans to make a fourth misadventure for Phil, Stu, and Alan, it's hard to imagine that the studio will be able to resist taking another crack at The Hangover honeypot one day (after letting the series rest for awhile).
Based on Robert Ludlum’s novel series, The Bourne Identity delivered a quality international spy thriller - in spite of a modest budget and relatively niche source material. The first entry in the series was a surprise hit in America, which was responsible for over half of the movie’s $214 million worldwide gross.
The Supremacy sequel improved upon the first in ticket sales, cementing star Matt Damon as an American James Bond, and with audience’s primed for more, the series’ third entry raked in over $442 million globally. Despite underwhelming reviews, even the Bourne Legacy, a spin-off starring Jeremy Renner, was financially successful - bringing the franchise’s total box office take to $1.2 billion (over the course of a single decade).
Of course, like other franchises on our list, that number will continue to grow - since a fifth chapter (featuring a starring role for Matt Damon and Jason Bourne) is already slated for release in 2016. At this point, it's unclear if Legacy's poor response will impact the potential box office for (the currently unsubtitled) Bourne 5 but it's easy to imagine that the choice to bring Damon back, and ditch Renner entirely, means the upcoming film is poised to be a true successor for Ultimatum - and give prior series installments a run for their money in theaters.
Ben Stiller's Meet the Parents was a Hollywood remake of a 1992 indie film – both of which featured a straightforward premise: a loving boyfriend’s first meeting with his girlfriend’s parents, The Byrnes, results in a series of awkward encounters and comedic misunderstandings. It was a simple setup - one that was turned into a smash hit franchise thanks to the film’s leads (especially Robert DeNiro).
With $330.4 million in global box office revenue, Meet the Parents was a solid release for Universal Pictures but it was the film’s sequel, Meet the Fockers, that turned the story on its head, adding Hollywood heavyweights Dustin Hoffman Barbra Streisand, to truly exceed expectations – turning a successful franchise into an international hit with $516.6 million.
Like many family centric comedy franchises before it, the studio snatched-up low hanging fruit - making the (obvious and mostly uninspired) choice to extend the series by introducing Focker children into the mix. The final film, titled Little Fockers, was significantly less successful with reviewers but still drew audiences to the megaplex, managing to add a respectable $310 million (and a Razzie win for Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Alba) to the series coffer, for a total haul of $1.15 billion.
Alvin and the Chipmunks
Alvin and the Chipmunks may have been a successful animated series in the 1990s but there was no guarantee that a CGI/live-action hybrid film would attract a new generation of kids to the franchise. Keep in mind, while Alvin and the Chipmunks might seem like a no-brainer on the surface, plenty of cartoon-turned-film franchises have not fared nearly as well - with some outright struggling to make back production and marketing expenses. Still, armed with a series of Chipmunkified pop music covers, Alvin and the Chipmunks managed to shrug off harsh reviews from critics and pulled in $361 million across the globe.
Of course, 20th Century Fox didn’t stop at one film and introduced The Chipettes in the Squekquel – which went on to surpass the box office power of the first film with $443 million. The third installment, Chipwrecked showed signs of franchise fatigue and, subsequently, underperformed in the domestic market. Yet, thanks to strong international brand loyalty, the movie squeaked by with another $342 million. Future installments are planned but, even in the face of nasty critical response, the three films have collectively grossed almost $1.15 billion for the studio.
By this point it's unlikely the next film, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip, will significantly alter critical perception of the kid-focused series; however, can Fox and director Walt Becker (Van Wilder), at least reverse box office backslide - and push the franchise past a $1.5 billion worldwide gross?