Best Franchise Ever: What Is the Greatest Film Series of Them All?

We crunched the numbers to figure out which film series made the most money and impressed the most fans and critics, and then we crowned the 10 best ever.

by and | August 6, 2020 | Comments

Collage of movie franchise images, including Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Fast and the Furious, Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, Mad Max, the Lord of the Rings, and James Bond

It’s no secret that Hollywood is preoccupied with sequels, prequels, remakes, and spin-offs, considering a familiar, beloved piece of intellectual property is the easiest way to score a massive payday at the box office. Movie franchises are, of course, far from a new concept, as production studios and filmmakers have been feeding audiences more of what they know they like since the earliest days of cinema. And when they’re done right, there’s no reason a longstanding film franchise’s tenth installment can’t be every bit as good as the first. With that in mind, we decided to dive into some data and have a little fun trying to determine the Best Movie Franchise Ever, and while the final results were surprising, they also made a lot of sense.

Before we jump in, though, we need to clarify a few things about the process. First, our data set includes every film series with at least three installments for which we could find reliable Tomatometer scores, Audience Scores, and box office numbers. Regarding the latter, we had to stick to domestic box office earnings, again due to reliability issues with global market totals. Unfortunately, this meant older series, like the classic Blondie franchise from the 1930s to 1940s, or Jackie Chan’s Police Story movies, which largely were not released theatrically in the U.S., wouldn’t make the cut, due to incomplete or insufficient data. Once we collected the relevant information, we calculated Average Tomatometers, Average Audience Scores, and Average Domestic Box Office (adjusted for inflation) for each franchise, to account for series with more installments earning bigger totals by default. Lastly, we omitted a handful of film series from the final rundown for a couple of different reasons: 1) They did not represent a film “franchise” in the sense we’ve generally come to recognize (Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, for example); or 2) They exist as a subset of a larger franchise (like the individual solo films within the MCU). To further clarify the second point, while characters like Batman and Spider-Man exist within the DCEU and MCU, respectively, they were the focus of individual franchises before the larger cinematic universes were created, so they were singled out as such. Needless to say, the process was a little complicated.

With all the logistics out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. After compiling all the statistics and ranking all 153 movie franchises we looked at, we were able to narrow the list down to a Top 10. Will the top spot go to the secret world of wizards, witches, and fantastic beasts, or the cinematic universe populated by Earth’s mightiest heroes? Maybe the saga of a powerful spacefaring family, or the legendary tale of a dangerous, magical ring? Check out the full list below, along with each franchise’s rank in our three data categories and a little bit of context, to find out which one is the Best Movie Franchise Ever!

The 10 Best Movie Franchises By the Numbers

10. Star Wars

Star Wars

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 72.9% (26th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 72.5% (28th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $692,833,333.33 (1st)
Films: Star WarsThe Empire Strikes BackReturn of the JediThe Phantom MenaceAttack of the ClonesRevenge of the SithStar Wars: The Clone WarsThe Force AwakensRogue One: A Star Wars StoryThe Last JediSolo: A Star Wars StoryThe Rise of Skywalker

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a plucky young farm boy who dreamed of becoming a pilot teamed up with a smuggler and a fugitive princess to lead a rebellion against an evil tyrant, and one of the most recognizable and beloved movie franchises ever was born. George Lucas’ epic space opera immediately enchanted the world, allowing him to expand his story across a trilogy of trilogies and a pair of spin-offs, not to mention various TV series, books, comics, toys, video games and theme park attractions inspired by the films. So how did it only end up at #10 on this list? Both critics and fans have had their qualms with some of the saga’s individual installments — sometimes they’ve agreed, and sometimes they haven’t. In the end, though, neither the average Tomatometer nor the average Audience Score ranked in the top 30 franchises overall, and it was only the consistently immense earning power of the Star Wars films — the best of any franchise — that pulled it up just high enough to make it into the top 10.

9. How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon

(Photo by ©Universal Pictures)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 93.3% (2nd)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 89% (2nd)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $203,130,826.33 (47th)
Films: How to Train Your DragonHow to Train Your Dragon 2How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

DreamWorks Animation released three films in 2010 hoping to topple the juggernaut that was Pixar, and the film that came the closest to achieving that goal was its adaptation of  How to Train Your Dragon, a children’s fantasy book by Cressida Cowell. Though it eventually lost the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Toy Story 3, HTTYD was both a critical and commercial success, thanks to its sweet, relatable tale of friendship and its breathtaking action sequences, stunningly rendered in 3D. Everybody wanted a Toothless of their own, and DreamWorks had a top 10-grossing hit on its hands, so a sequel was quickly greenlit and then released in 2014, followed by two television series and finally a third installment that came just last year. In direct contrast to the Star Wars franchise, all three installments of How to Train Your Dragon boast high Tomatometers and Audience Scores, but suffer from a relatively low box average office haul. True, it’s a little easier to maintain a high standard of quality across fewer films, but it’s worth noting that this is one of only two trilogies that made the top 10, and all three of its installments are superb.

8. Wizarding World

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

(Photo by ©Warner Bros.)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 78.6% (16th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 79% (16th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $363,870,410.20 (12th)
Films: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, The Deathly Hallows – Part 1, The Deathly Hallows – Part 2Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Speaking of successful young adult adaptations, it doesn’t get much better than Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular book series about a secret school for wizards and its most gifted student was a global sensation, so the film had a lot to live up to. Luckily, thanks to a charming and talented young cast and an experienced director in Christopher Columbus, fans were treated to an adaptation that leapt straight from the page to the screen. After that, the series flourished as the original Harry Potter saga played out over seven more films and a multiple Tony Award-winning stage play, which inspired more books, video games, and theme parks in the U.S. and Japan. All of this, of course, led to a prequel series set in the same universe and based on the 2001 companion guide book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first two installments of which were scripted by Rowling herself. Although they deepened the mythology underpinning the franchise, these were less enthusiastically received, both critically and commercially, particularly the most recent entry, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. A seventh place finish on this list isn’t bad by any means, and since three more films have yet to be made, there’s certainly a chance the franchise as a whole could rise up further.

7. The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

(Photo by Murray Close/©Lionsgate Courtesy Everett Collection)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 78.25% (17th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 76.75% (17th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $405,606,192.75 (8th)
Films: The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games: Catching FireThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

As the Harry Potter and Twilight film series neared their inevitable conclusions, Hollywood tripped over itself trying to find the next young adult novel-inspired sensation. It ultimately landed a winner in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling dystopian adventure series The Hunger Games, casting then-rising star Jennifer Lawrence in the central role of Katniss Everdeen and surrounding her with A-list veterans like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. Later installments attracted the significant talents of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Geoffrey Wright, among others, and every entry except for the last one finished in the top three box office earners of its year. Its legacy is apparent in the slew of similarly adapted young adult movies that sprung up in its wake and just as quickly disappeared, would-be franchise-starters like The Mortal Instruments: City of BonesBeautiful CreaturesSeventh Son, and The 5th Wave. Both critics and audiences found the final chapter of The Hunger Games, split into two films, a tad underwhelming compared to the first two, but its averages across all four installments were still fairly strong, and its eighth place finish in the box office category helped to propel the series into the top 10 overall.

6. Spider-Man

Spider-Man 2

(Photo by Columbia courtesy Everett Collection)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 81.25% (11th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 77% (15th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $411,579,893.13 (7th)
Films: Spider-ManSpider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: Far from Home

Considering DC Comics characters Superman and Batman both had a number of blockbuster films to their names before the turn of the millennium, it’s a little surprising that Marvel’s own A-lister, Spider-Man, failed to make a successful transition to the big screen until 2002. When he did finally debut in theaters, under the guidance of Sam Raimi, he not only kicked off one of the most successful superhero franchises ever, but also helped lay the groundwork for the massive paradigm shift in Hollywood that would eventually bring us the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe, for starters. Of course, Sony Pictures’ efforts to retain the rights to the character have famously resulted in two reboots and a parallel animated series, but the results overall have been rather… spectacular. Raimi’s original trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the MCU-related films with Tom Holland in the role, and the animated Into the Spider-Verse have all largely been critically acclaimed money-makers, and even the first of Andrew Garfield’s two outings as the famous wallcrawler is generally well regarded. Spidey may be a late bloomer compared to his DC counterparts, but he’s been the most consistent solo hero of them all.

5. Back to the Future

Back to the Future

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 78% (12th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 85.7% (4th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $328,209,623 (16th)
Films: Back to the FutureBack to the Future Part IIBack to the Future Part III

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale had a hell of a time trying to sell studios on their idea for a sci-fi comedy about a teen who accidentally travels 30 years back in time and plays matchmaker to his high school-aged parents. Fortunately for them — and for the rest of us — they were persistent, and they had a fan in Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the film, and more than 30 years after its release, Back to the Future is still hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time. The trilogy is full of iconic moments, memorable lines, and some of the most recognizable movie props ever, and, like many others on this list, it inspired a variety of offshoot merchandise and peripheral entertainment. That said, critics were a little lukewarm on the somewhat transitional feeling of Part II, and even though the first film was the highest-grossing movie of 1985, the two sequels didn’t come close to making the same kind of money. The fans of the franchise, who consistently rated the trilogy high enough to earn it a fourth place ranking in Average Audience Score, are the ones who helped prop it up into sixth place overall, and honestly, that feels OK.

4. Marvel Cinematic Universe

Avengers: Endgame

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/©Marvel Studios)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 84.7% (8th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 82.3% (8th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $404,780,252 (9th)
Films: Click for full list of films

About that groundwork that Spider-Man laid… In 2008, just one year after Sam Raimi’s third and final Spider-Man film, Marvel Studios launched what would become an industry-changing initiative with its first self-financed film, Iron Man. Initially perceived as something of an odd choice, being that Iron Man wasn’t considered one of Marvel Comics’ more recognizable heroes, the film earned rave reviews, particularly for Robert Downey Jr.’s work in the title role, and kick-started what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the MCU cranked out a handful of seemingly unrelated solo films en route to a blockbuster showdown in 2012’s The Avengers, it reaffirmed RDJ’s bankability, made global superstars out of then relatively unknown actors like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, and sent every studio scrambling to imitate the feat with a connected cinematic universe of their own. A dozen years and 23 films later, audiences are still hungry for more, but with several of the MCU’s characters now either dead, essentially retired, or nearing the end of their contracts, it remains to be seen if Marvel can maintain the same high level of interest and quality for the next decade and change. In the meantime, while critical reception has fluctuated a bit across this juggernaut of a franchise, its Average Audience Score and Domestic Box Office both rank in the top 10, and there’s good reason to think it’ll keep delivering for the foreseeable future.

3. Middle-earth

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

(Photo by New Line courtesy Everett Collection)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 79.3% (13th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 86.3% (3rd)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $420,055,657.50 (6th)
Films: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson had a monumental task ahead of him when he set out to translate one of the most celebrated works of fantasy literature to the big screen, but nearly 20 years after the release of the first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tale. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy took home 17 of the 30 Academy Award nominations it earned, with Return of the King winning in all 11 categories for which it was nominated — an Oscar record. It was such a cultural phenomenon that fans clamored for Jackson to work his magic on an adaptation of Tolkien’s precursor novel The Hobbit, which is something Jackson had wanted to do as early as 1995. After a bit of studio drama, a new trilogy emerged, and while it wasn’t quite the critical darling that the Lord of the Rings films were — it brought the franchise’s Average Tomatometer ranking down to 13th place — it still resonated with fans (3rd in Average Audience Score) and made a lot of money (6th in Domestic Box Office). Today, Jackson’s films are seen as the definitive interpretation of Tolkien’s novels, leading to a resurgence of interest in high fantasy and Tolkien’s work in general, and they remain one of the most influential and beloved film series of all time.

2. Indiana Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark

(Photo by ©Paramount courtesy Everett Collection)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 86.25% (6th)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 81.25% (9th)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $515,870,633 (3rd)
Films: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford is the only actor to play central roles in more than one of the top 10 franchises on our list (unless you count Tom Holland in the MCU, which is debatable), but while he shared the spotlight with others in the Star Wars saga, he owns the screen as Indiana Jones. As with Star Wars, we can thank George Lucas’ fascination with the classic movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s for this adventure series about a cocky, handsome, swashbuckling archaeologist. This time, though, Lucas handed the directorial reins over to Steven Spielberg, and together, they breathed life into three of the most iconic action-adventures to come out of the 1980s. Like most of the other franchises on this list, the Indiana Jones movies led to massive merchandising opportunities and spawned new iterations of the character in other media, like books, television, and video games, before Ford, Lucas, and Spielberg reunited for another go in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But the popularity — and profitability — of the films led to a number of similar franchises, from the updated Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser to the Tomb Raider video game adaptations starring Angelina Jolie and the National Treasure movies starring Nicolas Cage, just to name a few. As for Indy himself, there’s a fifth film on the books for 2022, and Disney CEO Bob Iger has said it won’t be the end of the franchise. That sounds like good news all around for the rest of us.

1. Toy Story

Toy Story 2

(Photo by ©Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Average Tomatometer Score/Rank: 98.75% (1st)
Average Audience Score/Rank: 90.25% (1st)
Average Domestic Box Office/Rank: $462,000,000 (4th)
Films: Toy StoryToy Story 2Toy Story 3Toy Story 4

It might surprise some to see an animated series at the top of this list, but Toy Story is anything but your average, run-of-the-mill kiddie cartoon. As a fledgling animation studio, Pixar had already won an Oscar for its 1988 short film Tin Toy, about a small one-man-band toy attempting to escape from a destructive toddler. That film drew the interest of Disney, who approached director John Lasseter about expanding the idea into a feature film. The result, of course, was an absolute game-changer, as Toy Story was the first feature film to be wholly computer animated, ushering in a new era for the genre that would ultimately result in the addition of the Best Animated Feature Academy Award to be added in 2002. Since then, Toy Story has spawned three sequels, all garnering near universal acclaim — the first two films are both Certified Fresh at 100% — and inspired a whole generation of artists, animators, and storytellers to make the most of the medium. For its part, Pixar has remained a steadfast leader in the genre, picking up accolades left and right and continuously pushing the boundaries of its craft. But the Toy Story franchise, which ranked first in both Average Tomatometer and Average Audience Score while coming in fourth for Average Domestic Box Office, remains the studio’s crowning achievement, and it is officially the Best Movie Franchise Ever.

Top 10 Franchises by Category

[All data accurate as of 6/30/20]

Average Tomatometer Score

  1. Toy Story (99%)
  2. How to Train Your Dragon (93.3%)
  3. Mad Max (90%)
  4. John Wick (88.3%)
  5. Ip Man (87.2%)
  6. Indiana Jones (86.3%)
  7. Kung Fu Panda (85%)
  8. MCU (84.7%)
  9. Evil Dead (82%)
  10. George Romero’s Living Dead (81.3%)

Average Audience Score

  1. Toy Story (90.3%)
  2. How to Train Your Dragon (89%)
  3. Middle-earth (86.3%)
  4. Back to the Future (85.7%)
  5. Bad Boys (84%)
  6. John Wick (84%)
  7. Ip Man (82.4%)
  8. MCU (82.3%)
  9. Indiana Jones (81.3%)
  10. Evil Dead (80.8%)

Average Domestic Box Office

  1. Star Wars ($692,833,333.33)
  2. Jurassic Park ($541,149,213.80)
  3. Indiana Jones ($515,870,633)
  4. Toy Story ($462,000,000)
  5. Jaws ($428,732,426)
  6. Middle-earth ($420,055,657.50)
  7. Spider-Man ($411,579,893.13)
  8. The Hunger Games ($405,606,192.75)
  9. MCU ($404,780,252)
  10. Shrek ($390,501,104)

Thumbnail images courtesy of Everett Collection