Now more than ever Hollywood studios need franchises--films that can generate multiple sequels, TV shows and lots and lots of merchandise. Franchises also make the job of marketing movies much easier, because audiences already know the characters and, if the franchise is successful, are emotionally invested in what happens to them.
Despite the money Hollywood has thrown into producing and marketing franchises like Mission: Impossible, Transformers and Terminator, nothing so far has touched Star Wars. According to Box Office Mojo, the six Star Wars movies have earned a total of $4.5 billion in ticket sales worldwide, including $2 billion in the U.S. The films have generated an additional $20 billion in merchandise sales, which helped land George Lucas in the 97th spot on our recent Forbes 400 list with a net worth of $3.25 billion. There's also a popular Cartoon Network spinoff that has convinced a whole new generation that it is cool to be a Jedi.
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To compile our list we used data from Box Office Mojo and ranked franchises based only on domestic box office revenue. We did not adjust for inflation.
Ranking second behind Star Wars is Harry Potter. The six Warner Bros. films have grossed $1.7 billion, an average of $285 million each. The seventh film is slated to hit theaters this November in 3-D. It needs to earn $300 million to catch up with Star Wars, and considering that 3-D tickets can cost as much as 40% more than regular tickets, it's likely to cross that threshold. With an eighth film slated for 2011 (the second half of the last book), Harry Potter has a chance to become the highest grossing franchise. Lucas could spoil that with his plans to rerelease the Star Wars films in 3-D beginning in 2012.
In third place: James Bond. The franchise has brought in $1.6 billion in the U.S. alone, which helps explains the frenzy that has surrounded rumors that, because of MGM's financial troubles, the Bond franchise could be over.
Those worries might be greatly exaggerated. Director Sam Mendes dropped out of the running to direct a movie based on the book The Hunger Games (another potential major franchise) because he is slated to direct Bond 23, which seems to be back on.
Batman ranks fourth with $1.4 billion. Time Warner ( TWX - news - people ) studio Warner Bros. relaunched the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, which grossed $205 million. The sequel, The Dark Knight, more than doubled that gross with $533 million at the U.S. box office. Director Christopher Nolan is reportedly working on his third Batman movie.
Shrek ranks fifth with $1.3 billion. The film franchise nominally came to an end this year with Shrek Forever After, which despite being in 3-D was the lowest-grossing of the four Shrek films (in the U.S.), with only $238 million at the box office. The Shrek franchise lives on with the upcoming Puss in Boots movie, which is scheduled to hit theaters next November. The film is a spinoff featuring the character voiced by Antonio Banderas, who made his first appearance in Shrek 2. The new Puss movie is a perfect example of why studios love franchises: Even if the main characters run their course, there is always the potential to find a way to keep the money rolling in.