In literary terms, The Lord of the Rings is certainly the most seasoned brand name on this list. In cinematic terms, it’s easily the newest. When Peter Jackson took the reigns of J.R.R. Tolkien’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ epic back in 2001, he set a new standard for globetrotting, awe-inspiring filmmaking. Each film of the original trilogy took home at least $850 million in worldwide gross, including final go-round The Return of the King, which brought in a cool billion. With the following two films of The Hobbit saga averaging about $900 million each, interest in Tolkien’s furry-footed friends has never been greater…or more profitable.
Well, here’s our first example of a franchise where ticket sales aren’t everything. Jurassic Park isn’t exactly an under-the-radar indie production, but its numbers are the proverbial Compsognathus compared to the lumbering T-rex that was The Lord of the Rings. With the first – and finest – film of the series snagging just under $1 billion worldwide, the following two sequels failed to meet the standards set in 1993. But what the franchise does boast is an enormous slice of the merchandising pie. Out-of-cinema revenue continues to pour in through toys, T-shirts, plastic lunchboxes and whatever else the studio wants to slap a raptor’s face on. Oh, by the way, it has its own ride at California’s Universal Studios, and they’re releasing a fourth film next year. Prepare the cash registers.
The iconic, all-American superhero has been around for about 75 years, but never has the Man of Steel’s presence been more heavily felt across the pop culture landscape. The archetypal hero has enjoyed multiple incarnations in film (Christopher Reeves’ Superman, the underrated Superman Returns and more recent Man of Steel), television (origin series Smallville), comics and just about any other form of media you can imagine. Behind most great profit margins is a great brand, and Superman’s unmistakeable ‘S’ might just be the most recognisable symbol ever designed. When Man of Steel producer, Charles Roven, declares the logo to be ‘right up there with the Christian cross’, you better believe we’re dealing with a money-making giant.
You didn’t honestly think Superman would be the only superhero on here, did you? After all, wherever Clark Kent is, Bruce Wayne usually isn’t too far away, including on this list. Rougher, meaner, darker and edgier than his justice-dispensing frenemy, the Batman has turned into the consummate antihero mainstream filmgoers had been baying for for a long time. Before 2008’s The Dark Knight, no Batman film had managed to haul in anywhere near half a billion dollars in worldwide gross (the closest being Tim Burton’s Batman, with a little over $400 million). Of course, the two most recent films have turned over a billion dollars apiece and made the franchise the most accessible it’s been since, well, ever. In the interests of mutual benefit, Bats and Supes will team up in the Man of Steel sequel before going for broke in the Justice League epic, DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers behemoth. ‘Cause, you know, Bruce Wayne really needs the money…
How could this be anything other than number one? Star Wars, the sci-fi mega-franchise that has consistently been stacking cash hand over fist since the mid-70s, is the perfect example of a film title milked to the end of its very lifespan, and when the fans decided they hadn’t had their fill, it was milked some more. Before helming the franchise, George Lucas agreed to keep his salary at a comparatively modest $150 000 in exchange for retaining all merchandising and sequel rights. With the entire Star Wars filmography boasting over $4.5 billion in worldwide takings, and Disney’s $4 billion purchase of the franchise last year, and their plans to release a new trilogy, and the motza of merchandise that goes along with that…where was I again? Oh yeah, big bucks.
In our modern corporate world, film franchises just might be the most valuable piece of intellectual property on the planet. Just a single name, character or location can conjure up endless excitement and nostalgia in its millions of fans across the globe. More importantly, the right brand can yield endless profits via sequels, re-imaginings, re-releases and merchandising. But before we get into a heated debate about which movie titles would sell for the most, be warned that the franchises on this list are not ranked solely on dollar value alone, but also incorporate the franchise’s future potential for growing bigger and better.