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Top 5 most successful and popular movie franchises of all time

Top 5 most successful and popular movie franchises of all time

By Andrew Bud Adams, Contributor | Posted - Oct. 19, 2011 at 5:27 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — On July 14 of this year, one day before the American release of the final "Harry Potter" film, The Atlantic magazine posted to its Web site a complex, albeit logical, attempt at ranking the greatest movie franchises of all time. The financial success of films as reported by Box Office Mojo isn't adjusted for inflation, the article points out, and any ranking of greatness should also consider critics' scores (as reported by Rotten Tomatoes).

The Atlantic's top five franchises by adjusted box office earnings are:

  1. "Star Wars"
  2. "Spider-Man"
  3. "Jurassic Park"
  4. "Indiana Jones"
  5. "The Lord of the Rings" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" (tied)
Alternatively, The Atlantic's top five by critics' rankings are:

  1. "Toy Story"
  2. "The Godfather"
  3. "Indiana Jones"
  4. "The Bourne Identity" franchies
  5. "Harry Potter"

An average of both scores on all movies yields the following results:

What's your list?
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  1. "Indiana Jones"
  2. "Toy Story"
  3. "Spider-Man"
  4. "Star Wars"
  5. "The Lord of the Rings"
The math is reasonable, certainly, but several flaws persist. For example, the release of the eighth "Harry Potter" film was not accounted for in these statistics, though it's worth noting that Voldemort's defeat was a huge success both critically and financially. The film is currently ranked (unadjusted) as the third-highest grossing movie of all time. ("Avatar" has the comfortable lead, though not a franchise film — yet.)

But should money even be a matter for consideration? Sure, it's the easiest way to put a label on something — its value is its price tag. But then again, big box office franchise films like these tend to release in multiple formats nowadays, upping what might otherwise be a less impressive gross.

Take a second look at "Avatar": In 2010, Box Office Mojo reported that "nearly 81 percent of 'Avatar''s gross is from 3D presentations. Normal 3D accounts for over 64 percent of the gross, while IMAX 3D accounts for more than 16 percent. That leaves the 2D theaters with an over 19 percent share of the gross."

Therefore, the critics' scores are the more compelling criteria in The Atlantic's ranking — but can they account for all the reasons we love and return to certain film series?

This is, of course, a subjective question. How do we love films? Let us count the ways. We might rank them according to innovation, the mark they leave on their genre, star quality, timelessness, awards, special effects, the amount of times the phrase, "I have a bad feeling about this" is used...

But how about continuity? If there's one critical lens through which we ought to scrutinize movie franchises, continuity must be it. This ignores the likelihood that sequels are made for the sake of profit, taking the assumption that the story must go on because there's more of it to tell. It also rewards films that work hard to stay consistent in any of those categories above — films in which characters and plotlines from one installment reasonably follow those in others.

Heck, we may as well define some rules:


  1. The installments must function together in conveying a unified story and theme.
  2. The franchise can't be a direct adaption of a book series; that's cheating. (Sorry, "Harry" and "LotR" fans.)
So how do entries from The Atlantic's lists measure up under this critical lense? Now that the parameters are in order, let the countdown begin:

5. "Indiana Jones"

Ranked No. 1 in The Atlantic's final list, a continuity critique drops this beloved action-adventure franchise to the last spot here. Why? After all, Indy is the same throughout all three — that is, four movies: the whip, the fedora, the understated wit. It has that heroic John Williams score and the repetition of character traits (like Indy's aversion to snakes), in-jokes (like the single gun shot that evens otherwise overwhelming odds) and editing techniques (like overhead travel-map montages).

"Indiana Jones" clearly isn't lacking in fan-favorite motifs. What it does lack is a unified story, a shortcoming only amplified by the latest installment, which most of us probably like to pretend never happened.

Like Indy himself, each movie in this franchise is fairly self-reliant, with a supporting cast of love interests and sidekicks that tend to drop in and out (whatever happened to Short Round?). This means that the attempt to add continuity with the return of Marion — not to mention a long-lost son — actually works against what this series stands for. Truth be told, the franchise as a whole can't compare to the original "Raiders of the Lost Ark" — ironically, the only installment missing "Indiana Jones" in the title.

4. "Toy Story"

Disney/Pixar's animated trilogy is undeniably great, with a visual consistency that most live-action films aren't capable of. What's more, it appeals to audiences of all ages. It, too, offers heroic characters, recognizable music and a mixture of action and humor, but goes even further than "Indiana Jones" through its unified theme of loyalty to one's responsibilities. So why not rank it No. 1?

Top 5 most successful and popular movie franchises of all time

Because the "Toy Story" franchise shares something else in common with "Indiana Jones": Rather than working together the way one of those book series adapations might, each installment is fairly self-contained. Each presents its own conflict, its own villain, its own satisfying conclusion, so that the trilogy is less the archetypical "creation, fall, redemption" arc and more a series of separate stories involving the same characters. What's more, those stories begin to feel slightly repetitive — in a disappointing way.

Take "Toy Story 3," which, while certainly a fantastic film, uses for its inevitable backstory montage the story of how Lotso became the villain. Does that story — and character, for that matter — remind anyone else of Jessie and Stinky Pete from "Toy Story 2"? Isn't this just another bitter toy gone bad? Even his fate as a garbage truck decoration smacks of Stinky Pete's comeuppance at the hands of a little girl.

So while this franchise deserves its critical and financial success, it loses points where continuity is concerned.

3. "Pirates of the Caribbean"

This series tied with "The Lord of the Rings" for The Atlantic's fifth highest-grossing franchise, but didn't fare so well with the critics. In terms of continuity, however, it ranks as third best.

What gives this four-film series a cleaner continuity than "Indiana Jones" or "Toy Story" is that it actually attempts, unlike them, to tell a continuous story. What's more, it manages this fairly well, despite the lack of preparation to this end.

For example, the first installment, "The Curse of the Black Pearl," doesn't require a sequel, though it easily inspires one. We don't know how Jack got his magical compass or ship, for instance, but these questions are answered in "Dead Man's Chest." This sequel does require a third installment due to its cliffhanger ending (handled almost as well as the "to be continued" endings in the "Back to the Future" trilogy) and is arguably the strongest film in the series. This may be due to its reliance on pirate book homages — everything from "Treasure Island" to Edgar Allan Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" (the description of the "Flying Dutchman" is uncannily familiar).

Also, each movie tends to jokingly refer to the others. Ever notice how Jack's line from the first film, "And then they made me their chief," foreshadows events in the second?

But "Pirates" isn't a trilogy anymore, thanks to the recent "On Stranger Tides," which also pulls much of its thematic elements from literature (in this case, Tim Powers's novel by the same name). Though called by some the best in the franchise, the fourth installment better resembles one of those stand-alone entries in "Indiana Jones" or "Toy Story," making it a harder sell as the conclusion of one continuous story.

2. "Spider-Man"

It's almost agonizing to consider this franchise inside a list like this. In fact, it's agonizing to consider it at all. Yet The Atlantic's joint analysis of the "Spider-Man" trilogy averages out to the No. 3 spot, which it actually exceeds here.

Why? Because despite how much die-hard Spidey fans might hate the ill-cast characters, the embarrassing costumes, or the self-indulgent storyline, the fact is that director Sam Raimi really did keep his vision consistent from one installment to the next. However much Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane makes us want to gag, she does at least have her own ambitions that carry from one film to the next: We see her go from a verbally abusive home and failed auditions to a successful Broadway career. However much James Franco's brooding vendetta makes us wish his appearance was limited to one of his oh-so-many cameos, the pursuit definitely follows classic stages of descent and redemption. And however much Tobey Maquire's Spider-Man drains the character of all his cleverness and moxy, we do see his continual struggle to weigh great power with great responsibility.

In fact, if anything, this franchise makes us hopeful for the only other superhero trilogy to be helmed by the same director throughout: Given how much "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" improved on the progression from origin story to dramatic escalation, how will next year's "The Dark Knight Rises" complete the continuity of that franchise? Hopefully it's third installment won't trip and explode after the high expectations established by the sequel, which is what happened with "Spider-Man." The ret-conning of Uncle Ben's murder was an unnecessary evil, and the franchise's biggest hit.

1. "Star Wars"

Yes, there's a fair amount of retroactive continuity here, too, once you add in the prequel trilogy. In fact, those disastrous three movies — which never seem as bad as you remember until you watch them again — might be cause enough to drop this franchise from leading contender. So what makes it earn that spot in the end?

Top 5 most successful and popular movie franchises of all time

In truth, continuity is what the "Star Wars" series is all about. It's famous for it. George Lucas patterned the original trilogy after Joseph Campbell's archetypes of heroic journies, not just confirming them, but deliberately conforming to them. And because Lucas is so obsessed with repeat patterns, we see that same arc emphasized to an even larger extent with the addition of the prequel trilogy: Anakin's tragic fall in "Revenge of the Sith" makes Darth Vader's redemption in "The Return of the Jedi" all the more satisfying. Lucas bent over backwards, even adding or replacing certain scenes in the original trilogy to make it better follow the prequels (replacing Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen as the ghost of Anakin is probably the most notorious example).

In short, this franchise has it all: the tell-tale score that anyone, anywhere can recognize; the visual consistency; the continous story; the endurance through time and technology. As a film franchise not based on a book series, "Star Wars" definitely plays like one, making it the strongest example of original continuity in filmmaking, and, by that standard, the most successful movie franchise of all time.

Andrew Bud Adams


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