TOWERING FILM franchises are more than seasonal tentpoles. So often planned out in multiple installments, of course, they can function like big-tops unto themselves.
And these days, with so much in Hollywood riding on what’s as reliably bankable as an ATM, the circus never quite seems to leave town. Just as the latest Spandex franchise departs, in storm the lightsabers.
Hasbro announced over the weekend, as you know, that Paramount is lining up the next four — count ’em, four — Transformers films over the next decade. That puts it on a long-range planning track in league with franchises from DC, Universal and all things Disney. This, as the Fast and Furious franchise reportedly eyes “Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray for the eighth installment, even as “Furious 7” ($1.511-billion) is poised to overtake “The Avengers” and become the fourth biggest film ever.
So now that such all-time franchise kings as Harry Potter ($7.7-billion) and Lord of the Rings ($5.8-billion) are safely retired on their golden thrones — and Hunger Games ($2.3-billion and counting) is down to its final bullet next month — which active film franchises have the most upside going forward?
Well, trying to predict such huge fortunes — be it live-action, animation or some CGI hybrid — can prove to be cloudy with a chance of cracked crystal balls. But here is Comic Riffs’ working Top 15:
15. IRON MAN: On the one hand, the trio of Tony Stark films has amassed nearly $2.4-billion worldwide. And the character that effectively launched the dominance of the MCU is not only necessary in the forthcoming Avengers team-up films, but surely has an open door to continue. But for how much longer — and for how much more salary and points — will Robert Downey Jr. even consider solo-king in the suit? Any year now, he may go the way of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.
14. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: A similar question holds true for Tom Cruise, though this one-man cruise missile, in his mid-50s, looks as famously driven and stunt-happy as ever. Plus, this year’s “Rogue Nation” ($679-million worldwide) has performed almost identically to its 2011 predecessor, so the fandom is holding steady.
13. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: As with RDJ and Cruise, Johnny Depp is another multi-decade star in his 50s who may grow weary of returning to his Disney franchise ($3.7-billion worldwide and counting). Then again, Depp seems to slip into his self-invented character like a second skin, and given that it was inspired by Keith Richards, Capt. Jack Sparrow may yet prove as deathless — as long as the rum and pay checks hold out.
12. BOND, JAMES BOND: Unlike the previous three franchises listed, the Broccoli family can forever trade in for a fresh middle-aged 007. (Hello, Idris Elba?) The $4-billion franchise holds on as nobly as the idea of Britain as a superpower — its upper lip as stiff as a shaken martini. Besides, the Cold War-born franchise has spanned JFK to Obama, Khrushchev to Putin, and just may well outlive us all. Never say never.
11. ICE AGE: Blue Sky Studios has been able to print money for years off this nearly $3-billion franchise. And unlike Pixar’s Toy Story franchise — where each and every film bears incredible audience expectations — Scrat and friends can roam less encumbered by narrative weight. It’s all a matter of when the franchise decides to go extinct.
10. STAR TREK: A feature-film franchise nearly as old as Star Wars (this “five-year mission” has been exploring since 1979), this enterprise not only has proved steady, but J.J. Abrams also jump-started the crew especially deftly before disembarking for Star Wars. Now, Fast & Furious helmer Justin Lin assumes the $2-billion bridge for next year’s “Beyond” — the franchise’s 13th film. (Hello, Idris Elba.)
9. SPIDER-MAN: Superman almost cracked this list, but so much depends on next year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” outside of the Man of Steel’s Justice League service over multiple films. Spidey, in some ways, is a more interesting case. On one hand, there is reboot fatigue with this $4-billion franchise; on the other hand, because Sony has now granted partial custody to Marvel, we look for his own films to rebound.
8. DESPICABLE ME: This summer’s “Minions” ($1.1-billion and counting) is now one of the top-10 biggest films. Ever. Yes, you read that right. Doing Universal’s incredible 2015, the “Despicable Me” spinoff in the $2.6-billion franchise is now the second-biggest animated film ever, trailing only the monster “Frozen.” And yellow should continue to equal green.
7. X-MEN: One of the two franchises (alongside Spidey) that really launched superhero film’s third wave (after Donner and Burton), it now sits both as regal as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and ever-infused with first-class new blood. Last year’s “Days of Future Past” (nearly $750-million globally) was the first X-film to top the half-billion-dollar mark; next year’s “Apocalypse” could well top that.
6. FAST & FURIOUS: The nearly $4-billion franchise drifted into all-time territory this year, as “Furious 7” became a Top-5 all-time film (as it chases down “The Avengers” for the No. 4 slot). But having been spurned by two of its previous directors, can it score a gifted new driver?
5. THE AVENGERS: As this year’s “Age of Ultron” nears the billion-dollar mark in overseas receipts alone, Joss Whedon makes his triumphant exit — and it fully dawns that we have to wait three full years till the next true Avengers team film, “Infinity War, Part 1.” (Next year’s Cap film, “Civil War,” will have to tide us over.)
4. JURASSIC: It was as if the Spielberg-sprung franchise were frozen in amber for 14 years, just waiting for the right fresh director to bring it back to life. This year’s “Jurassic World” ($1.66-billion) has now grossed more than the first two Jurassic films combined (unadjusted for inflation); is the biggest film ever by someone not named Cameron; and nailed the ’90s-nostalgia zeitgeist. Now, we await a sequel in several years.
3. AVATAR: And speaking of Jimmy Cameron: This is the real wild card in the deck. The director of the two biggest films ever will go back to the blue Avatar well three times (as slated) between 2017 and 2020. That’s a big gamble, but the returns could be record-breaking.
2. TRANSFORMERS: Although last year’s “Age of Extinction” saw a franchise dip domestically, the global audience remains massive for the nearly $4-billion prime powerhouse — and it’s the overseas market that lets Hasbro confidently announce the next four Transformers films, potentially locking in Mark Wahlberg till he’s just about Tom Cruise’s age now.
1. STAR WARS: Universal has grabbed many of the box-office headlines this year, but Disney — on the strength of “The Force Awakens” — could turn into the new year breaking some major records. Has any film in recent memory been so highly anticipated? If J.J. Abrams can course-correct the franchise in the wake of the prequels, Star Wars could eventually double the $4.5-billion global take of the first six films. May the Force, and the 3-D ticket price, be with them.