- Movie franchises have bolstered the global box office for decades and could help revitalize ticket sales at a time when cinemas are struggling to survive.
- For this list, CNBC defines a franchise as a film series, or a collection of films, that share the same fictional universe or have been marketed as a series.
- In addition to canonical series, CNBC is also including franchises based on iconic characters.
Hollywood is hopeful that a robust Covid vaccine rollout will bring moviegoers back to theaters in droves, but content matters as well.
Fortunately, there are a slew of blockbusters waiting for audiences in the months ahead, including new films from top franchises like Marvel, James Bond, Fast and Furious and Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe. Movies from these much-loved franchises have bolstered the global box office for decades and could help revitalize ticket sales during a time when cinemas are struggling.
With this in mind, CNBC compiled a list of the top franchises. But first, a quick note. There can be some debate about what constitutes a true franchise. For this list, a franchise is defined as a film series, or a collection of films, that share the same fictional universe or have been marketed as a series.
For example, the four Hunger Games movies, which are based on the novels by Suzanne Collins, are one film series. These films all take place during the same timeline, in the Hunger Games universe and were marketed as a series of interconnected movies.
In addition to canonical series, CNBC is also including franchises based on iconic characters. The movies themselves may or may not be connected in one timeline, but the films are centered around one specific character. James Bond is one example of this.
For this list of highest-grossing film franchises, CNBC worked Comscore to collect the global ticket sales.
13. Pirates of the Caribbean — $4.52 billion
Since the debut of "Curse of the Black Pearl," Disney has released five Pirates of the Caribbean movies globally. The film franchise, based on the popular theme park attraction, has generated more than $4.52 billion worldwide.
While the film series has been popular domestically, it generated the bulk of its ticket sales from international moviegoers. Around $3 billion of its total haul came from markets outside of the U.S. and Canada.
There have been rumors that Disney plans to produce a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean film, but no formal announcements have been made.
12. Transformers — $4.86 bilion
In total, the studio has released six films as part of the sci-fi series, garnering $4.86 billion at the global box office. Included in that figure is an animated feature film based on the toy line, which tallied $5.8 million in sales at theaters in 1986.
Like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the Transformers film series has benefitted from strong ticket sales internationally. Around $3.28 billion of its total box office has come from markets outside the U.S. and Canada.
11. Batman — $4.90 billion
Over the course of 10 live-action films and one animated one, the Batman franchise has garnered nearly $5 billion at the box office.
Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck and now Robert Pattinson all have one thing in common — they've played Batman on the big screen. (And Will Arnett is the voice behind the mask in the animated Lego version.)
While these movies are not interconnected in the same way that other film series are, Batman is so iconic that his standalone projects are often grouped together into one franchise. CNBC opted not to include "Justice League" in the franchise, as it is a team-up film. "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" has been included because Batman is named in the title of the film.
10. Jurassic Park — $4.99 billion
With only five films released, the Jurassic Park franchises has scored an impressive $4.99 billion at the global box office. Its sixth installment arrives in 2022.
The first three films in the series were released between 1993 and 2001, starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum.
A new trilogy starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas-Howard, which takes place years later, launched in 2015.
9. DC Extended Universe — $5.6 billion
Launching in 2013 with "Man of Steel," the DC Extended Universe was Warner Bros. response to the success of Disney's series of Marvel films.
In the last seven years, the studio has released nine interconnected films, amassing $5.6 billion in global ticket sales. Because director Todd Phillips has said that his film "Joker" is not connected to Warner Bros. other DC films, it was not included in this box office data.
More films are slated to join this franchise in the next few years with "The Suicide Squad" due in theaters in 2021, talk of a Flash movie and a second Aquaman film coming in 2022 and a follow-up to "Shazam!" in 2023. A film featuring Black Adam is also in the works as well as a third Wonder Woman feature.
8. Middle Earth — $5.86 billion
Based on the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, there are six films that make up the Middle Earth film franchise. These include a trilogy adapted from "The Lord of the Rings" novels and a trilogy adapted from "The Hobbit."
In total, the six films generated $5.86 billion at the global box office.
While there are no immediate plans for any more film adaptations, Amazon has optioned the material for a television series for Prime Video.
7. The Fast and the Furious — $5.9 billion
With nine films, and a tenth coming in 2021, the Fast and Furious franchise has tallied nearly $6 billion at the global box office since 2001. The films are distributed by NBCUniversal.
The film series, which features a diverse cast and filming locations, has been particularly successful internationally. Some $4.2 billion of its global haul has come from foreign markets.
"F9" was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but is expected to arrive in theaters this summer.
6. X-Men — $6.03 billion
Starting in 2000, 13 films set within the X-Men Universe were released by 20th Century Fox. In total, these films collected more than $6 billion in ticket sales globally.
The films are separate from the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite coming from the same comic book company, because they were created by a different movie studio. There was also no crossover between Disney's MCU and Fox's X-Men films. "New Mutants," "Logan" and both Deadpool films are included in this franchise.
This will change when a third Deadpool film is released under the Disney banner in the next few years. Disney bought Fox's entertainment assets in 2019 as part of a deal worth $71 billion and is expected to bring the X-Men and the Fantastic Four into the MCU.
5. Spider-Man — $6.35 billion
Like Batman, Spider-Man is iconic enough in the film industry to warrant his own standalone franchise.
The webslinger from Queens has appeared in seven solo live-action films since 2002, as well as one animated feature. In total, those films have topped $6.3 billion at the global box office.
Spider-Man has been portrayed by three separate actors: Tobey McGuire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. The first of those five live-action films were solely created and distributed by Sony. However, when Holland took the mantle, his character was integrated into Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Spider-Man franchise only includes films in which Spider-Man is the main protagonist. So, MCU films where Peter Parker appears, but isn't part of the title have not been added to the box office haul. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" has been included.
4. James Bond — $6.89 billion
Perhaps one of the longest-running film franchises in cinematic history is James Bond. Since 1963, there have been 24 films featuring the famed secret agent. These films have collected more than $6.89 billion globally.
Like Batman and Spider-Man, James Bond is an icon in the film industry. Seven actors have taken on the role 007 — Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig.
After the release of "No Time to Die," the 25th James Bond film due out in October, there will be a hunt for an eighth.
3. The Wizarding World — $9.18 billion
The Harry Potter franchise has only gotten larger since the Boy Who Lived first appeared on screen in 2001.
In addition to the eight films based solely on Harry Potter during his time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Warner Bros. launched a series of films that explore the larger Wizarding World. Known as the Fantastic Beasts series, these films, of which two have been released, follow Newt Scamander as he gets caught up in a decades-long battle between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald.
In total, these 10 films have generated $9.18 billion at the global box office. Three more films in the Fantastic Beasts series are expected to hit theaters in the coming years.
2. Star Wars — $10.2 billion
In 1977, "Star Wars" captured the imagination of a generation. More than 40 years later, the franchise continues to dominate the box office.
In total, 12 Star Wars films have been released theatrically — nine that are part of the Skywalker Saga, two that were standalone spinoff films and one animated feature. These films together have tallied more than $10.2 billion in ticket sales globally.
While Disney's current focus for the Star Wars universe is on its streaming service Disney+, Patty Jenkins has been tapped to direct "Rogue Squadron," a new film due in theaters in 2023. The studio has also called on Taika Waititi and Marvel head Kevin Feige to tackle their own Star Wars films. Rian Johnson is rumored to be working on his own trilogy set in the Star Wars universe.
1. The Marvel Cinematic Universe — $22.59 billion
With 23 movies released in just 12 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most prolific franchises in cinema history. And there are more movies on the way.
Since 2008, the MCU has topped $22.5 billion at the global box office. Included in the franchise is the highest-grossing film of all time with "Avengers: Endgame."
Under the careful watch of Feige, the MCU has weaved an intricate and interconnected tale across decades and genres. That saga is set to continue with at least a dozen more theatrical releases in the next five years, as well as at least 10 television shows affiliated with the main universe.
Note: These numbers are not adjusted for inflation. There are many reasons that the film industry does not adjust for inflation when talking about top box office earners, but the chief among them is that movie ticket inflation is hard to tabulate. Since movies are released in so many foreign markets, analysts would have to determine the inflation rate of each country at the time a film debuted, which would be labor-intensive given most films are released in more than 100 markets during their initial run.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.