Love them or hate them, franchises make studios very happy: a steady stream of sequels means built-in audience familiarity and characters with a proven track record. Audiences tend to reward movie franchises with good box office… broken up by the inevitable disappointment when Such and Such Part Five actually turns out to be a giant pile of crap. Yet franchises are nothing new to Hollywood and as the 21st century rolls on, they certainly show no signs of disappearing.
So which ones are the biggest? It’s a tricky question, considering the vagaries of box office (newer films do better than old on that count) and the ephemeral nature of a given film’s legacy. But generally speaking, the franchise with the most titles under its belt can probably claim bragging rights. Based on that criteria, we’ve assembled a list of the ten biggest franchises ever made. The rules are simple: the count includes feature-length films screened in theaters. Cartoons, serialized shorts and straight-to-DVD releases don’t count. “Special Edition” re-releases don’t count (we’re looking at you, George Lucas). Changes in actors and franchise reboots are acceptable, as are crossovers… provided that the central character or characters remains the same throughout.
We’ve also noted the best film in the series (in our opinion of course) and the most profitable film in the series (based on domestic box office). Most franchises never get this far: three or four movies seem to be the limit of audience indulgence. Good or bad, these ten have broken that barrier.
7 movies, $416 million box office.
“Hey, we have an idea for a cheap bit of torture porn in which a dying cancer patient puts people through excruciating torment to make them understand the value of life. It costs us nothing and brings in the undemanding in droves. Let’s ruin Halloween with it!”
Best Film in the Series: The original, which was nothing to shout about, but at least had the decency to try an original idea.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Saw II brought in an impressive $87 million with only a microscopic $4 million budget. A license to print money indeed.
7 movies, $2.26 billion box office.
The undisputed king of the franchises in terms of box office dollars, Star Wars edges onto the list with the inclusion of the animated Clone Wars pilot, which enjoyed a brief theatrical run before settling into Cartoon Network. The original trilogy changed the way movies were made and remains the beloved favorite of millions of excited fans. The second trilogy? Not so much, though some (like me) believe that its charms will become more visible over time.
Best Film in the Series: Empire. And I challenge anyone who says A New Hope to a vicious nerd slap-fight at this year’s Comic Con. I’ll be the guy in the superhero t-shirt.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: With $460 million, it’s The Phantom Menace. Read it and weep.
8 movies, $1.4 billion box office and counting.
The Dark Knight Rises hasn’t arrived yet (and you’d be a fool to think that Warners would retire Batman afterwards), so this one is definitely climbing the charts. Even without counting TDKR, it still has an impressive eight films: two from Tim Burton, two from Joel Schumacher, two from Christopher Nolan, the 1966 Adam West film, and the animated Mask of the Phantasm, which scored a theatrical release. (We’re not counting Catwoman.) Six actors playing Batman, four distinct “Bat-verses” (five if you separate the Burton and Schumacher films), and no signs of slowing down. Pretty impressive… but then again, what else could we expect from the Caped Crusader?
Best Film in the Series: The Dark Knight has it, though Batman Begins is too readily dismissed.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Again, it’s The Dark Knight with $533 million in domestic gross. Even adjusted for inflation, it’s still the king.
8 movies, $2 billion box office and counting.
Warner Bros was probably dancing jigs when they scored the rights to Harry Potter: a huge built-in fan base, seven planned books and an easy pay day every eighteen months for most of a decade. Even more impressive is that – while quality rises and falls – none of the films have sunk to the depths that other entries in this list have, and all of them work very hard to deliver respectable entertainment.
Best Film in the Series: A touchy question because there’s been a fair number of good ones. I’m going with The Half-Blood Prince until we get a look at the finale.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: First time’s the charm: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone bagged $317 million.
9 movies, $361 million box office.
In addition to the six films in the “pure” Nightmare series, we have Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the Freddy vs. Jason match up, and the 2010 reboot to bring the total to 9. That still only makes Freddy Krueger the third biggest slasher on this list… though with Robert Englund in the role, he always did his job with style.
Best Film in the Series: New Nightmare explored some fascinating connections between the artist and his creations, edging out the chilling original by a hair.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Freddy vs. Jason landed $82 million when it opened in 2003.
10 movies, $363 million box office.
“I get a nice fat check every time they make a new one,” John Carpenter sheepishly admitted when asked about the franchise he spawned. The original stands as a stark masterpiece: minimalist filmmaking in the service of a mad slasher scenario that no one will ever top. Since the first Halloween… well, the less said the better. They tried to mix up the formula with the oddball Season of the Witch, and Rob Zombie embarked upon a well-meaning but unconscionably ugly reboot, but none of them came close to the perfection of Carpenter. The rest were just a cheap money grab, ultimately eclipsed by flashier killers.
Best Film in the Series: Need you even ask?
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Zombie’s 2007 reboot netted $58 million, but the original’s $47 million translates to $162 million in 2011 dollars. That’s almost pure cream considering the miniscule $300,000 budget.
11 movies, $270 million box office
The long and convoluted history of The Pink Panther proves that not even the death of a star can halt the quest to wring as much cash as possible out of said star’s legacy. Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau started out as a minor supporting character in the original film, only to morph into the sole and only reason to tune in. He surrendered the role only once, to Alan Arkin in the not-terribly-good Inspector Clouseau. After Sellers’ death, the series continued with a “clip” movie (Trail of the Pink Panther), two movies featuring new stars (Ted Wass and Roberto Fucking Benigni), and a reboot with Steve Martin as Clouseau. All five are physically painful to sit through, though they couldn’t dent Sellers’ legacy in the earlier films. This is also one of the only comedy series to make the top 10 (though Police Academy missed it by just a hair; you’re welcome).
Best Film in the Series: A Shot in the Dark is the easy pick, though I’m fond of The Pink Panther Strikes Again, with its funny riff on James Bond.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: The Steve Martin reboot grossed $82 million domestically, though if you adjust for inflation, 1975’s Return of the Pink Panther netted $171 million in 2011 dollars.
11 movies, $1.4 billion box office and counting.
In a lot of ways, Star Trek should be number one on this list. 11 movies is impressive enough, but add four TV series, an animated cartoon and God knows how many novels and comics to the list, and it stands in a class by itself. Only Batman can match it for sheer pop culture output, and with the JJ Abrams reboot, it shows no sign of stopping. Quality is a bit more of mixed bag, but when Trek hits its stride, it’s truly a thing of beauty.
Best Film in the Series: The riveting Wrath of Khan gets the nod, despite a strong showing from the Abrams Star Trek. First Contact finds an honorable position in third place.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Abrams’ Star Trek scored $257 million domestically, just edging out Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s $254 million in adjusted dollars (it made $82 million when released in 1979).
12 movies, $465 million box office.
The interesting thing about Friday the 13th was how gradually the pop culture elements assembled themselves. Jason Voorhees wasn’t even the killer in the first film and the hockey mask didn’t show up until the 3rd film (which originally appeared in 3D). Along the way, it grabbed at every possible permutation of the formula it could find: sending its unstoppable killer to New York, outer space, and against fellow boogeyman Freddy Krueger. None of it was really good – even the original felt slipshod and derivative – but like the man in the mask himself, nothing short of nuclear war is going to slow it down.
Best Film in the Series: I’m actually going to go with the 2009 reboot here, if only because it delivers all of the essential elements in one package.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Freddy vs. Jason earned $82 million in 2003, while the very first film scored $39 million in 1980. Adjust that for inflation and Part 1 barely passes Freddy vs. Jason at $106 million in 2011 dollars.
23 movies, $1.6 billion box office and counting.
We take a mighty leap from Friday the 13th’s 12 movies to the 23 produced by Mr. Bond. That doesn’t include two early versions of Casino Royale (though it does include Sean Connery’s “unofficial” return in Never Say Never Again), which might boost its numbers even higher. Like Batman and many of the other characters in this list, Bond has proven adaptable to changing cultural mores: shifting actors without a blink and updating his shtick to reflect new enemies and global situations. Connery will always be king, but the five actors who followed him each brought their own touch to the character, and ensured that he will be with us for some time to come.
Best Film in The Series: Goldfinger wins in a close race against Daniel Craig’s glorious Casino Royale. But everyone has their favorites in this series.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Quantum of Solace grossed the most in raw dollars ($169 million), but if you adjust for inflation, the surprising Thunderball wins out. ($63 million in 1965 dollars translates into a staggering $450 million in 2011 terms.)
Please take a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor and we’ll continue.
Haven’t heard of the Bowery Boys? Don’t worry; few have. But 1937’s film Dead End – featuring a gang of tough little kids from working-class New York – launched a 21-year franchise that has yet to be matched. The “Dead End Kids” made six movies (including the classic Angels With Dirty Faces starring James Cagney). They then morphed in the “Little Tough Guys” for 12 more films, the “East Side Kids” for 21 movies, and finally the “Bowery Boys” for a staggering 48 movies between 1946 and 1958. That’s a grand total of 87 movies in 20 years; even just counting the Bowery Boys’ titles, it ranks more than twice as many as Bond’s 23 films… a record that may never be topped.
Sadly, we don’t remember these films because none of them were particularly good. What began as gritty street dramas soon morphed into full-bore comedies: many directly copying the films of Abbott and Costello and similar comedians of the time. In an effort to find more things for them to do, the movies went down some fairly outlandish paths, as the Boys battled ghosts, pirates, Nazi spies and hypnotists, as well as travelling to Baghdad and an incredibly racist version of Africa.
Best Film in the Series: We’re going to cheat and list Angels With Dirty Faces – a Dead End Kids flick – basically because nothing else in their library can touch it. The other films are available on DVD for the curious or unduly brave.
Most Profitable Film in the Series: Numbers aren’t available, so we can’t say for certain, but with 48 films in 12 years, somebody was sure paying to see them.