The 25 most powerful film franchises in Hollywood ... and why they matter more than movie stars

If characters are the new movie stars, then the franchise is the new coin of the Hollywood realm. Movie studios live or die by how many franchises — connected universes, sequel factories, spin-off machines — they have in their stable.

But which franchises have the most juice?

We crunched the global box office numbers (courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com) for series and franchises that have at least three installments and are still ongoing. (Hence, no “Avatar” or “Lord of the Rings.”) Then we factored in more diffuse criteria, like longevity (how many could you conceivably make?) and merchandisability (does anyone want toys?). And what we came up with was our movie franchise power list, or the 25 Most Powerful Franchises in Hollywood.      

Read: more on why movie stars don't matter and movie franchises do. 

1. Marvel Cinematic Universe

Box office to date: $9.3 billion

Number of films: 13

With films planned at least through 2020, the interwoven adventures of Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America and the Guardians of the Galaxy show no sign of letting up. 

Strength: A nearly inexhaustible roster of comic characters to pull in; a hunger from the younger set for merchandise. 

Weakness: They haven’t had to deal with replacing a star. And who knows how the audience will respond to a new Tony Stark. At some point, Marvel’s marquee actors (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans) will become prohibitively expensive.

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2. Star Wars

Box office to date: $6.7 billion

Number of films: 8

Kathleen Kennedy, after taking over for George Lucas, has reinvigorated Lucasfilm with a sense of purpose: to release a “Star Wars” movie every year for the foreseeable future. And since “The Force Awakens” rekindled a planet’s love affair with Luke, Leia and Han (sniff), there’s no reason to think audiences won’t show up. 

Strength: Multi-generational appeal, a world moviegoers love, proven merchandising muscle.

Weakness: Much of the “Star Wars” success has been nostalgia-driven — how long can looking backward work?

3. James Bond

Box office to date: $5 billion

Number of films: 25

Any franchise that can survive Roger Moore’s leisure suits is, clearly, impenetrable. Going strong since 1962 and breaking attendance records with Daniel Craig’s outings, there’s no reason to think Bond will ever retire.

Strength: The long-established ability to freshen the actor in the lead role means Bond could return in perpetuity...

Weakness: …but it’s about time the definition of who and what 007 is gets some updating. (Jane Bond, perhaps?)

4. Harry Potter

Box office to date: $7.7 billion

Number of films: 8

The books were massive. The movies were massive. No one involved with them in an above-the-line capacity ever needs to work again if they don’t want to. And more magical stories are in the works.

Strength: As the books continue to reach new audiences, and Potter hits the stage in London, the hunger for J.K. Rowling’s characters remains — and it doesn’t hurt that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at two Universal Studios theme parks gives fans a place to buy everything Hogwarts. 

Weakness: Unclear if the Harry Potter-less “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” will resonate with audiences.

5. The Fast and the Furious

Box office to date: $3.8 billion

Number of films: 7

No one could have predicted this street-racing, “all about family” series would become a global phenomenon when it started with 2001’s modest fuel-injected undercover cop thriller. But here we are, ready to race next year in Cuba and beyond. 

Strength: The multicultural cast plays incredibly well around the world; a fresh villain for each segment grants the illusion of change. 

Weakness: As age catches up with them, it’ll get harder for Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson to get into racing shape, and it’s upon their broad shoulders that this franchise rests.

6. Transformers

Box office to date: $3.7 billion

Number of films: 5

Paramount is investing heavily in Transformers, even starting a writers room to gin up scripts for the next few installments, starting with 2018’s “Transformers: The Last Knight,” and stating its openness to crossing over with “G.I. Joe.” 

Strength: Robots and the computers that generate them don’t age. Since the humans are interchangeable, they could make these films forever.

Weakness: The novelty of cars turning into robots can wear off. Once you’ve bought a dozen toys that do the same thing, do you really need more? Domestic grosses are robust, but waning.

7. Despicable Me

Box office to date: $2.7 billion

Number of films: 3

Minions, minions, millions of minions. It certainly seems as if Universal and Illumination can squeeze out installments of this animated franchise — and its little yellow spinoff — for as long as they’d like. 

Strength: Endless merch possibilities; the films play incredibly well overseas. 

Weakness: Children can be fickle audiences — when they fall out of love with a thing (see: the penguins from “Madagascar”), they really fall out of love with it.

8. X-Men

Box office to date: $3.8 billion

Number of films: 7

Some of the seven installments of this franchise are better than others, but this parable for the outcasts of society continues to show box office pluck; the most recent outing, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” pulled in $285 million worldwide thus far. 

Strength: “Deadpool” showed, to the tune of $763 million worldwide, that there’s still fresh life in the saga’s central metaphor: “Mutants” are stand-ins for whichever class society is discriminating against today. 

Weakness: There will come a time, and soon, when Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy stop having fun getting into costumes and makeup and start getting real.

9. Jurassic Park

Box office to date: $3.6 billion

Number of films: 4

If you were born in the late ’80s, then Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” is your “Star Wars” — and apparently every single one of those people showed up at theaters to see “Jurassic World,” which made an astounding $1.6 billion worldwide. With Chris Pratt at the center of a new cycle of stories, that nostalgia is likely to have a steady draw. 

Strength: Dinosaurs. 

Weakness: How long will “dinosaurs” be enough?

10. Pirates of the Caribbean

Box office to date: $3.7 billion

Number of films: 4

Before Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm, Capt. Jack Sparrow was its unlikely box office savior, at least in the live-action department. And the franchise’s staying power has proved remarkable. 

Strength: Massive brand awareness; presence in every Disney park. 

Weakness: In the wake of the recent scandal surrounding Johnny Depp and alleged domestic violence … Johnny Depp.

11. Mission: Impossible

Box office to date: $2.78 billion

Number of films: 5

Who could’ve known that back in 1996 Tom Cruise — then one of the biggest stars in the world — would initiate the franchise that would buoy him just as the very notion of movie stardom has faded? 

Strength: By cycling in new directors, Cruise (also a producer) keeps the films feeling fresh. 

Weakness: A key aspect of the “MI” appeal is seeing Cruise place himself in ever-increasing physical danger. Cruise is in his mid-50s; how long can he keep doing that?

12. Spider-Man

Box office to date: $2 billion

Number of films: 5

Once upon a time, he was Marvel’s franchise character, but over the course of five Sony films, his fortunes rose and then (precipitously) fell. 

Strength: Spidey’s appearance in “Captain America: Civil War” injected some fresh blood into Peter Parker’s cinematic prospects. And Marvel’s Midas, Kevin Feige, is producing Sony’s next installment. 

Weakness: Um … supervillains, maybe?

13. Toy Story

Box office to date: $1.9 billion 

Number of films: 3

Pixar’s founding franchise formed the bedrock for everything the company has done since the 1995 premiere. 

Strength: Every character is a toy — people buy LOTS of toys. Buzz Lightyear and Woody have become pop culture icons. 

Weakness: Pixar likes to take its time with sequels. “Toy Story 3” was in 2010, the next one is due in 2018, and that pace in a Marvel world is a minus.

14. Ice Age

Box office to date: $2.8 billion 

Number of films: 4

These films — about a pack of mammals trying to outrun extinction (you know, for kids!) — have done exceptionally well, especially overseas. 

Strength: Animated films travel well; they’re less obtrusive when dubbing into foreign languages. Animals also make for good stuffed animals.

Weakness: When was the last time you heard anyone buzzing about these movies? People go, clearly, but no one is dying to go.

15. Indiana Jones

Box office to date: $1.9 billion

Number of films: 4

One of the most enduring characters in pop culture, even if all of the films aren’t immortal — yes, we’re looking at you, “Crystal Skull.” 

Strength: With Disney money behind them, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have announced a fifth chapter. 

Weakness: Ford’s knees — OK, but to be fair, Ford’s on-set injury on “Star Wars” derailed production for a while, and, at 73, he can’t be expected to do much running and jumping any more. It’s probably time to recast, and the powers that be clearly don’t want to.

16. DC Cinematic Universe

Box office to date: $1.5 billion

Number of films: 5

Strength: With Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, DC has some of the most recognizable characters in the world. 

Weakness: Warner Bros’ strategy to exploit those characters has been questionable. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” underperformed, directors have been dropping out of movies. Perhaps with the elevation of DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns to oversee those films (with Jeff Berg), the ship can be steadied.

17. Kung Fu Panda

Box office to date: $1.8 billion

Number of films: 3

Strength: Many of the same strengths as other animated series (ease of overseas translation, immense merchandisability), with one added bonus: The films are all set in China, the jewel in the international market crown. 

Weakness: The films’ quality is inconsistent — not that the audience seems to care so far, but at some point, they always do.

18. Terminator

Box office to date: $1.8 billion

Number of films: 5

Strength: No one doesn’t know what a Terminator is, even if the most recent film — 2015’s “Terminator: Genisys” — landed with a thud at the domestic box office. It made a more than respectable $350 million overseas.

Weakness: No one really knows what to make of a Terminator movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger. Age catches up with even the most merciless hunting machine.

19. Star Trek

Box office to date: $1.7 billion

Number of films: 12

Strength: Fifty years’ worth of pop-culture penetration on TV and in the movies goes a long way toward immortality; JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot jump-started the film franchise. 

Weakness: Abrams’ second installment “Star Trek Into Darkness” was a critical disappointment; if July’s “Star Trek Beyond” doesn’t deliver, then this franchise’s future rests in TV (with Bryan Fuller’s new CBS show).

20. Planet of the Apes

Box office to date: $1.6 billion 

Number of films: 8

Strength: The first series to feel like a franchise as we now know it (complete with questionable sequels and toy tie-ins) was strong enough to rebound from Tim Burton’s ill-advised reboot; everybody likes monkeys on horseback with machine guns. 

Weakness: Kids today aren’t clamoring for “Apes” bedsheets.

21. Alien

Box office to date: $1.3 billion

Number of films: 7

Strength: Now that original star Sigourney Weaver seems to be done with “Alien” movies, the most important element of this franchise is the monster — (sorry, face-hugging xenomorph), -- which means the cast is totally refreshable. 

Weakness: 2014’s “Prometheus,” while the highest grossing of the seven-film series — unless you adjust for inflation — was a critical disappointment. Ginning up enthusiasm for more will be an uphill battle.

22. Jason Bourne

Box office to date: $1.2 billion

Number of films: 4

Strength: Matt Damon’s abs/willingness to get into the kind of shape to show off those abs; director Paul Greengrass knows the series like no one else. 

Weakness: This series is entirely reliant on Damon and his abs — “Bourne Legacy,” starring Jeremy Renner, didn’t set the box office alight.

23. Men in Black

Box office to date: $1.7 billion

Number of films: 3

Strength: It’s a globally recognized brand, which cemented Will Smith’s box office power; tonally, it’s right in line with the kind of good-natured spectacle that Marvel leans on. 

Weakness: Reports that the fourth film will merge with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s “21 Jump Street” universe brings the viability of the “MIB” universe into question — is that a desperation play or corporate synergy?

24. Rocky

Box office to date: $1 billion

Number of films: 7

Strength: Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. If they hadn’t performed a 10th-round miracle and resurrected Sylvester Stallone’s franchise with “Creed,” this would be on the inactive list. 

Weakness: And yet, without Sly — and how much longer will he be able to play Balboa? — how long can Rocky keep punching?

25. Die Hard

Box office to date: $1.4 billion

Number of films: 5

Strength: Bruce Willis as John McClane is one of the 20th century’s great characters; even as the grosses for these films trail off domestically, they still perform overseas. 

Weakness: There is no “Die Hard” without Willis, and the attempts to inject younger characters (Justin Long, Jai Courtney) fallen flat. And the in-development “Die Hard: Year One” is, without Willis, just another cop thriller.

Find me on Twitter at @marcbernardin.

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