From blockbuster to franchise


How big movies created even bigger franchises and Hollywood made lots of money. 

by Gregory Wakeman in TV & Movies

It's a crowded cinematic universe.
It's a crowded cinematic universe.

By the mid-1990s, the movie blockbuster had come to be viewed by many critics as little more than a Hollywood commodity that could be relied upon to deliver excited audiences, as well as truckloads of cash for studio investors.

Steven Spielberg's 1975 watery classic Jaws launched the genre as we recognise it today, becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process, thanks in part to its brand of fast-paced cinematic excitement that scared a generation of moviegoers from going in the ocean again (supposedly). Jaws would become one of the most successful movies of its era, with various studios attempting to emulate its triumph by pushing into production not dissimilar over-promoted, high-budget features to cash in on the Jaws effect, with somewhat mixed results.

This strategy, on occasion, paid off, as with 1977's Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, though it also failed so miserably in other instances that companies almost went bust in the process (see William Friedkin's Sorcerer). On the back of this experience, as the 80s and 90s progressed, it became clear that movie blockbusters, though crucial to Hollywood's survival, were also a high-risk strategy in a fast-evolving cinematic market.

Of course, a backlash soon followed as a result of this push for big box office, with critics and directors alike voicing their disgust at the growing dominance of such "tentpole" movies over more author-driven projects battling for the attention of studio executives.

In an industry where the box office equals if not in certain circumstances beats Oscar success, the tentpole was always going to win after Spielberg's shark became such a huge commercial phenomenon. More recently, Sam Mendes' Skyfall managed to successfully juice the Bond franchise, a move consolidated by the also Mendes-helmed Spectre, until the culmination of the Daniel Craig era arrived slightly controversially with No Time to Die, with each of the new era Bond movies proving to be cinematic extravaganzas in their own right.

With Skyfall and Spectre, Mendes managed to redefine possibly the world's most famous movie character, giving James Bond a partial origin story, whilst also maintaining the secret agent's mystique and box office potential moving forward.

In a similarly reinvented vein, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga thrilled Hollywood with the cinematic possibilities it appeared to show could redefine the blockbuster franchise, whilst his sci-fi statement movie Inception went on to break even more critical and commercial ground. 

All of these movies are intelligent, concise and demanding of audience attention, even as they maintain the core elements of the blockbuster genre, foregrounding plot, production values and huge action set pieces, whilst at the same time remaining commercially accessible to a broad range of demographics.

See also the superhero boom of the early noughties, which continued employing intelligent, visually stimulating directors for expensive tentpole movies, which in turn contributed to the survival of the production companies so heavily invested in them.

Bryan Singer, for example, was tasked with bringing X-Men to the big screen, with The Usual Suspects director only deciding to take on the project after resonating with the themes of prejudice in the originating comic. Singer drew comparisons between Xavier and Magneto's differences of opinion on how to co-exist with humans with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X's struggles during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Further historical touchpoints featured in the franchise include the Roman Emperor Constantine I's conversion to Christianity to end the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire, as well as Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt against communists in 1950s America, all of which brought depth and humanity to the emerging X-Men franchise.

The original X-Men became a huge commercial success worldwide, was critically acclaimed and signalled the legitimate dawn of the superhero genre. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man continued this trend, with the director soaking his web-slinging epic in verisimilitude to make Peter Parker appear real and relatable. Its subsequent box office success confirmed that the comic book movie could replace generic action movies as the traditional summer blockbuster.

Over the following decades, movies based on famous works of literature, such as Lord of the Rings and the original cinematic Jason Bourne trilogies, also prospered under the direction of acclaimed moviemakers. In addition, even though attempted efforts such as Prometheus and Superman Returns failed to ignite positive responses from critics and audiences, they each managed to give future traction to their respective franchises and potentially ever-extendable franchises.

Avatar and The Avengers, two significant blockbuster movies in more recent cinematic history, went on to commercial success partly because of their use of new technology and an enviable promotional cache. Many blockbuster stinkers have also tripped and fallen en route to the box office, however; Troy, The Da Vinci Code, Transformers and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchises have all been criticised for being hollow ventures that fail to possess thematic or cultural values, even if they can pull in punters cash on initial release.

Putting these missteps aside, the genre continues to blossom today, despite the more recent turbulence of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the associated cost of living crisis, with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Man of Steel and the rebooted Stark Trek franchise keeping the box offices electronic tills humming.

Following the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home (which overtook Avatar at the box office) and The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, the statistics for the highest-grossing franchise will inevitably keep changing. The immediate box office future, however, looks to be dominated by the mega-franchises that have established themselves over the past couple of decades (one of the oldest of which is the continuously morphing Star Wars series).

So what does the immediate horizon look like for the blockbuster and its long-running sibling, the blockbuster franchise? Let's take a look at those franchises that currently dominate movieland and their worldwide cinematic box office to date for a clue as to what may be coming down the cinematic line.

Lord of the Rings

Regardless of the recent turbulence around the Amazon Prime imagining of the classic, New Line Cinema's trilogy, directed and shot simultaneously by Peter Jackson, went on to take £2.47 billion* at the international box office. Is there still cinematic life in the Rings universe? Time will tell.


The X-Men franchise feels like it has been around forever, with its mutant, history-smudging schtick. Marvel Studios, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built up this long-runner to a current take of £4.74 billion and, with the release of Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, it looks like there remains life in its morphing special powers yet.

Fast and Furious

The big, speeding cars franchise Fast and Furious from Universal Pictures has been rolling for 20 years now, with two more entries apparently on their way, which will be sure to raise the £4.85 billion international box office take even further in the years to come.


Warner Bros. Pictures Batman has taken £5.62 billion to date and, with the release of The Batman starring Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz earlier this year, continued its relentless, almost circular journey around international cineplexes.

James Bond

One of the big original franchises, the James Bond movies have gone through various permutations over the decades, bringing in £5.86 billion for studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer along the way.

Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig have all played British spy 007. What happens next for the franchise now that Daniel Craig has hung up his licence to kill is yet to be seen.

The Avengers

Another superhero franchise that now feels very familiar, Marvel Studios The Avengers has taken £6.40 billion internationally, which is not bad going for a four-movie set.


Another superhero franchise that has er, "evolved" over time is Spider-Man, which has made Columbia Pictures £7.91 billion at the box office so far, with another Spider-Man movie in the works, despite recent tensions between Disney and Sony, over the franchise.

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter franchise has, to date, brought in a magical £7.93 billion for Warner Bros. Pictures. To date, ten movies have been produced, with directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell and David Yates making their mark with the franchise.

Star Wars

Which brings us to another controversial franchise under the Disney banner; Star Wars has taken £8.50 billion internationally. Ten movies in, the franchise may have generated recent criticism, but it shows no sign of letting up, regardless of what criticism the die-hard fans have to say.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

The most commercially successful movie franchise remains that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has made £20.75 billion for Marvel Studios and Disney. There have been two dozen movies in the franchise, from Iron Man in 2008 to the latest Thor: Love and Thunder from earlier this year, with more incoming.

No matter how fantastical these movies are, their box office success continues.

Indeed, since the arrival of the blockbuster and its mega money-making sibling, the blockbuster franchise, such tentpole pictures have been a regular staple of the big screen experience. For both studios and fans, they have kept the cinematic pulses beating.

No matter what the real world throws at them, from economic uncertainty to pandemics and audience shifts to streaming, the blockbusters keep on rolling and, in all likelihood, will continue to do so for decades to come.

*All quotes from international cinema box office receipts are correct at the time of writing.

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