Surveying Cinema's Biggest Franchises
By Jason Newman Posted Jun 19th 2010 03:00PM
We're the first to say that Grand Canyon-sized chasms can exist between a film's commercial success and its artistic quality. Still, sometimes the two are not mutually exclusive. With Friday's release of 'Toy Story 3,' Pixar looks to continue their domination with their eleventh consecutive blockbuster, a smart, funny film aimed at both adults and children. We thought it would be a good time to look back at cinema's most successful franchises, as compiled by Boxofficemojo.com. Sure, the list isn't perfect, as the lack of inflation-adjusted grosses skews the list to more current films. But economics aside, the classics (or tripe, depending on your point of view) never die.
Average Gross: $242.4 Million
Total Gross: $727.2 Million
Michael Bay's thought-provoking art-house films have been beset with critical drubbings and allegations of massive in-fighting among the cast and crew. First, Megan Fox had some less-than-amicable thoughts on working with Bay, resulting in her being fired or quitting (depending on who you ask) from the upcoming 'Transformers 3.' With the July 2011 release of the third film, Bay and the rest of America can gauge how much of a role Fox played in the movies' $700+ million gross. Not incidentally, the total and average grosses also include the $5.8 million pulled in by 1986's 'Transformers: The Movie.' Pulling that out, the two most recent 'Transformers' films would be the third highest-grossing franchise ever. Impressive for a movie with no plot or interesting characters.
Average Gross: 242.5 Million
Total Gross: $2.43 Billion
Yes, this is not technically a franchise, per se, but we'd be remiss not to include the most successful brand ever. Since 'Toy Story's' release in November 1995, the Disney-run animation studio has gone 10-for-10, with its least successful film, 1998's 'A Bug's Life,' still grossing nearly $163 million. From its inception, the studio's films have been critical darlings (98% for 'Up'!), and the minds behind Pixar have created a series of children's films that adults not only don't mind seeing, but anticipate. In some -- see the first 20 minutes of 'Up' or the death of Marlin's wife and children in 'Finding Nemo' -- adult themes are handled with grace and, more importantly, without condescension. Call it formula without being formulaic.
Average Gross: $244.7 Million
Total Gross: $489.4 Million
If ever there was a sure thing in Hollywood, it was the immediate success of author Stephanie Meyer's immensely popular 'Twilight' book series as a feature film. Hollywood, of course, has never been shy about spectacle, but the buzz surrounding 2008's 'Twilight,' the first film in the series, was especially deafening. (I distinctly remember having the bad timing and foresight of seeing a movie the same night as 'Twilight's' opening night. My ears are still ringing from the throngs of teenage girls on line.) With the upcoming release of 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' and 2011's 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,' the franchise should jump up this list significantly in the next two years.
7. 'Jurassic Park'
Average Gross: $255.8 Million
Total Gross: $767.3 Million
Based on the 1990 book by Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park' ostensibly told the story of a theme park of cloned dinosaurs taken from the DNA of pre-historic insects. In the book, Crichton's ideas play as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of experimentation and cloning. While that notion remains in the films, it was George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic, responsible for the then-groundbreaking use of CGI and special effects, that earned the first film over $357 million. Two sequels would follow, Spielberg's 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' and Joe Johnston's forgettable 'Jurassic Park III.' The long-rumored 'Jurassic Park IV,' in discussions since at least 2002, has yet to materialize.
6. 'Lord of the Rings'
Average Gross: $265.2 Million
Total Gross: $1.1 Billion
The 'Twilight' for (predominantly male) fantasy geeks, J.R.R. Tolkien's saga of Frodo and Friends in Middle Earth was debated, analyzed, adored and criticized long before talks of a movie even began. When, after years of production and speculation, Peter Jackson's 2001 epic 'The Fellowship of the Ring' was released, it kickstarted a worldwide phenomenon that had even the coolest of kids learning 'Magic: The Gathering' and dressing up as hobbits for Halloween. Like 'Transformers,' an older movie -- in this case, 1978's 'The Lord of the Rings' -- skews the franchise's average gross downward. It says something, though, when that movie grossed only $30 million and still gets the franchise at number six of all-time.
5. 'Star Wars'
Average Gross: $274 Million
Total Gross: $1.92 Billion
What more can be said about George Lucas's franchise that hasn't already been? We prefer the ingenuity and creativity of the original series to the CGI explosion and Jar Jar Binks showcase that was 'The Phantom Menace' et al. The original 1977 film completely re-wrote the playbook for filmmaking. Despite Lucas's fear that 'Star Wars' would flop, the combination of unprecedented special effects, a simple yet endearing story (partially taken from Akira Kurosawa's 'The Hidden Fortress') and an anti-authority sentiment (with the Death Star filling in for both Hollywood and the Nixon-led government) have made the series the most dissected on the list. With the release of the prequels, it's also the most polarizing.
4. 'Harry Potter'
Average Gross: $285.5 Million
Total Gross: $1.7 Billion
Like 'Twilight,' the success of these films was pretty much a no-brainer. With the release of 2001's 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,' the social stigma of reading children's books in public was lifted, as grown men and women around the country buried themselves in J.K. Rowling's epic novels. (My personal tipping point observation was entering a New York subway and seeing more people with 'Harry Potter' books in the car than without.) While some denounced the series as sparking a new wave in witchcraft and satanism (false), the series became a worldwide phenomenon for kids and adults alike.
Average Gross: $311.9 Million
Total Gross: $1.25 Billion
Similar to Pixar, the story of 'Shrek,' an amicable, animated green ogre, is geared at children, but contains enough adult themes to keep the over-10 crowd enthralled for the duration of the film. 'Shrek 2's' $441 million gross made it the highest-grossing film of 2004 (crushing 'Spider-Man 2'). Despite a slight fall-off with 'Shrek 3' -- it did still take in over $320 million -- the latest installment, 'Shrek Forever After,' has already pulled in $215 million in less than a month (making it the third highest-grossing film of the year).
2. 'Pirates of the Caribbean'
Average Gross: $346.1 Million
Total Gross: $1.04 Billion
Who would've expected a pirate movie based on a Disneyland theme park ride to be the second-most successful franchise ever? Pirate movies were a safe bet to sink down to the bottom of the ocean ('Cutthroat Island'?) before Gore Verbinski's 2002 film. Johnny Depp, who'd already had an illustrious career, hadn't proven that he had the action star leading man chops to pull off Jack Sparrow, but naysayers were silenced after the original film opened at number one and eventually took in over $300 million. Rob Marshall, best known for taking musicals like 'Chicago' and 'Nine' to the screen, takes over from Verbinski for 2011's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.'
Average Gross: $371.3 Million
Total Gross: $1.11 Billion
Superhero movies are a tenuous and risky sub-genre. For every 'The Dark Knight,' there's 'Elektra' and 'The Avengers,' films that seemed popular on paper but never struck the right chord with audiences (did anyone buy Jennifer Garner as a superhero?). 'Spider-Man's' road to the movies dated back more than 25 years before its eventual 2002 release. Fans were clearly anxious. Taking in over $114 million in its first weekend alone, each of the three films in the series finished at one or two as the highest-grossing films of their respective years. With original director Sam Raimi ceding control to Marc Webb for 'Spider-Man 4,' it remains to be seen whether the series can continue its blockbuster run.
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