Best Movie Franchises of All Time
A movie franchise is a series of connected movies that share a common set of characters, universe, and concepts. Some of the most successful movies of all time are part of movie franchises, including Star Wars, Jaws, The Exorcist, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Avengers.
What makes a movie franchise rate among the best of all time is box office success, critical praise, and positive audience reaction. While franchises are known for their ability to generate franchise fatigue, the following film series (listed in order of the number of films within the franchise) have found ongoing success at the box office and with fans. (Note: All box office data comes from Box Office Mojo).
Toy Story (3 films, 3 theatrical shorts)
First Entry: Toy Story (1995)
Latest Entry: Toy Story Toons: Partysaurus Rex (2012)
Though there are computer animated movie franchises with more entries and bigger box office results (such as Shrek and Despicable Me), Pixar’s Toy Story — about a group of toys owned by a boy named Andy that come to life when he leaves the room — came first and has earned the most critical acclaim, including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture for Toy Story 3.
In addition to the three films, Pixar has released three theatrical shorts and two television specials featuring Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the Toy Story gang.
Mad Max (4 films)
First Entry: Mad Max (1979)
Latest Entry: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Australian director George Miller’s 1979 action film Mad Max became a cult hit after its release based on its post-apocalyptic imagery and the powerful performance by star Mel Gibson. Gibson starred in two sequels, Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which became increasingly more stylistic.
Thirty years later, Miller directed new Mad Max actor Tom Hardy in an action masterpiece: Mad Max: Fury Road. In addition to significant box office and critical success, Mad Max: Fury Road won six Academy Awards for its groundbreaking technical achievements.
Indiana Jones (4 films)
First Entry: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Latest Entry: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In 1981, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their considerable talents to create Indiana Jones, the story of an intrepid adventurer and archeologist, and cast Harrison Ford in the role. The result, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It spawned two well-received sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), before the end of the decade.
Though the franchise has been dormant since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which received the weakest reviews of the series), Spielberg and Lucas have suggested that additional releases are in the works.
The Hunger Games (4 films)
First Entry: The Hunger Games (2012)
Latest Entry: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
In The Hunger Games franchise, Jennifer Lawrence stars at Katniss Everdeen, a teenager in a dystopian future who leads a rebellion against an oppressive government. The final book in the series, Mockingjay, was split into two films. The four movies had a combined worldwide gross of nearly $3 billion.
Unlike the other franchises on this list, it seems unlikely that The Hunger Games franchise will spawn another sequel, since there are no additional books in the series. Of course, in Hollywood, never say never to spinoffs!
The Lord of the Rings (6 films)
First Entry: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Latest Entry: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy epic trilogy—one of the best-selling novel series of all time—The Lord of the Rings film franchise was directed by passionate fan Peter Jackson. The series follows the journeys of a group of small beings called Hobbits that set out to destroy a magic ring belonging to an evil Dark Lord.
Both fans of Tolkien and new audiences made the trilogy a box office success, and the final film in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, won the Academy Award for Best Picture — the first fantasy film to win the coveted prize. It also won ten other Oscars.
Several years later, Jackson directed a trilogy based on the prequel novel to the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit. Though the Hobbit films were less revered by critics and fans — the three-film adaptation of The Hobbit is less faithful to the novel than the Lord of the Rings films are to those novels — they were still major box office successes.
Rocky (8 films)
First Entry: Rocky (1976)
Latest Entry: Creed II ( 2021)
When Sylvester Stallone began writing a screenplay about a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia boxer who was offered a dream match against the world heavyweight champion, he couldn’t have possibly envisioned that the character would appear in more than a half-dozen sequels over more than forty years. But audiences have developed a deep connection with the Italian Stallion and his trials inside and outside the boxing ring. The original 1976 film won three Oscars, including Best Picture, and was followed by four sequels from 1979 to 1990.
The franchise made a stunning return to box office success with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. A spinoff about the son of Rocky’s championship opponent Apollo, 2015’s Creed, was another critical and box office success that breathed new life into the franchise and resulted in Stallone being nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Planet of the Apes (9 films)
First Entry: Planet of the Apes (1968)
Latest Entry: War for the Planet of the Apes ( 2021)
Few sci-fi films captured the public imagination as the original Planet of the Apes (1968), which depicted a group of astronauts (led by Charlton Heston) crashing down on a planet ruled by apes. The landmark makeup effects won an Honorary Oscar for John Chambers (before there was a makeup category) and the film’s ending is one of the most famous in cinema history. Four sequels followed from 1970 to 1973, as well as live-action and animated television series.
After a 2001 reboot directed by Tim Burton did well at the box office but failed to deliver a sequel, the franchise appeared to be at the end of its run. However, motion capture technology led to the visually stunning reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which stars Andy Serkis as Caesar, the ape that begins the revolution of primates. Two successful and critically acclaimed sequels also starring Serkis as Caesar followed, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of Apes ( 2021).
Harry Potter (10 films)
First Entry: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Latest Entry: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ( 2021)
The adolescent wizard Harry Potter was already a phenomenon from author J.K. Rowling’s young adult novels before the character made the obvious move to cinema. Each film adaptation of the seven-book series (with the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, being split into two films),was a blockbuster, and the eight Potter films grossed a combined $7.7 billion worldwide from 2001 to 2011.
Unsurprisingly, the franchise continued when Rowling agreed to write additional films depicting the earlier history of the Harry Potter universe. The box office success of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them showed there was plenty of interest left in Rowling’s universe and a sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, followed in 2021.
Star Wars (11 films)
First Entry: Star Wars (1977)
Latest Entry: Solo: A Star Wars Story ( 2021)
The episodic sci-fi Star Wars series is one of the most memorable in cinema history. Countless people around the globe have become fans of characters like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, R2-D2, and Yoda since the first film was released in 1977. It quickly became the highest-grossing movie of all time. Creator George Lucas followed that original film with two blockbuster sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), and 16 years later returned with a prequel trilogy that was another financial success, though the movies were criticized by fans and critics for their quality.
In 2012, Disney bought George Lucas’ film company, Lucasfilm, and has produced several Star Wars sequels and spinoffs starting with 2016’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the highest-grossing film in U.S. box office history.
Marvel Cinematic Universe (20 films)
First Entry: Iron Man (2008)
Latest Entry: Ant-Man and the Wasp ( 2021)
Releasing on average two films a year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — based on the dozens of beloved superheroes created by Marvel Comics — has found enormous success. Starting with Iron Man (2008), the MCU features several movies series featuring famed characters like Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor that all exist in the same universe. With 2012’s The Avengers, the superhero characters crossed over into an epic adventure.
The franchise has continued to expand since then, incorporating more quirky characters in films like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2021, the franchise scored two billion-dollar grossing films with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. The MCU is the highest-grossing franchise of all time, with an astounding $16 billion worldwide gross… and counting!
James Bond (26 films, plus 2 unofficial entries*)
First Entry: Dr. No (1962)
Latest Entry: Spectre (2015)
The British super-spy James Bond is the standard against which all franchises are measured. The series has featured six actors who have played the suave and sophisticated Agent 007 throughout the decades, each bringing his own take on the character. Bond’s cinematic adventures have featured groundbreaking special effects, thrilling action sequences, and some of the most memorable original theme songs ever recorded.
Though most fans of the series still cite original Sean Connery as the best of the Bonds, current James Bond Daniel Craig has starred in the highest-grossing films in the franchise.
*Two Bond films, 1967’s Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again, were produced independently of the main 007 series.
Godzilla (33 films)
First Entry: Godzilla (1954)
Latest Entry: Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle ( 2021)
The 1954 Japanese sci-fi monster film Godzilla tapped into the fears of nuclear war by unleashing a giant beast on the city of Tokyo. Dozens of sequels followed (including one pitting Godzilla against King Kong), and Godzilla became famous across the globe.
Godzilla has continued to draw audiences to theaters. The 2014 American remake grossed $529 million worldwide, and the 2016 Japanese reboot Shin Godzilla earned $75 million in Japan and won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Picture of the Year. Several American and Japanese Godzilla films are currently in the planning stages. While other franchises have come and gone, one monster remains standing.