Every summer, the movie studios release what they call "tentpole" movies. Normally, these are big-budget, effects-driven franchise movies, designed to prop up the studios and make them their profits for the year. I call them programmed franchises because they're not acquired with one movie in mind. The philosophy from the start is to produce at least a trilogy.

So much money is invested in these movies that failure can cripple a studio.

Trivia Blast!! - New Line Cinema had to merge with its parent company Warner Bros after the (relative) failure of The Golden Compass: 

Budget: $180M 
Box Office: $70M

(The Golden Compass was intended to follow the trilogy of His Dark Materials books by Phillip Pullman)

Stephen Spielberg is sometimes credited with creating the first summer "Blockbuster" movie with JawsJaws was the first movie to be distributed with a "wide release," meaning that it opened all across the country on the same day, something that is par for the course nowadays. Consequently, it muscled out all the competition and held onto the number one spot for weeks. It was also the first movie to pass $100M in box office receipts. It finished with $470M.

Jaws spawned 3 sequels of ever-increasing awfulness, since the concept was not really designed as a franchise in the first place. Jaws remained the biggest movie of all time until a little picture called Star Wars was released two years later.

Star Wars


Star Wars, at least in George Lucas's mind, was always meant to be the first of several movies. In a salute to the old serials of the past, he even called it Episode IV: A New Hope. The movie studios were wary of the project until they saw a line of people wrapped around the outside of theaters waiting to see it. Lucas was also savvy enough to realize the potential in merchandising his creation. Seeing the colossal box office and the huge demand for action figures and posters, movie studios forever decided that the summer would be blockbuster movie time.

Trivia Blast!! - Star Wars made Harrison Ford into a huge box office star, but his relationship with George Lucas began four years earlier. Ford taught himself to be a carpenter to support his acting career, and, after building some cabinets in Lucas' home, he was cast in a supporting role in American Graffiti.

Billion Dollar Movies

Titanic was the first movie to break the billion-dollar barrier in worldwide box office. After that, only 3 of the next seventeen movies to pass the mark were NOT part of a franchise. All 3 have planned or rumored sequels, however, which would leave Titanic as the only non-franchise movie to pass $1 billion.

Movie studios, hunting for marketable franchises, looked to successful book series: Harry Potter (8 movies), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hunger Games (2 so far), Twilight (5 movies), and The Hobbit (3 movies)…

...a new batch of fun and beautifully made animated movies: Toy Story (3 movies), Ice Age (4 movies) and Shrek (5 movies including Puss in Boots)…

...and rebooted older franchises: Star Wars (3 prequels with new sequels announced), Star Trek (2 new movies), Planet of the Apes (2 new movies) and James Bond (3 Daniel Craig movies).

Trivia Blast!! - Disney increased its punching power during the summer months by acquiring Pixar for $7.4 billion, Marvel for $4 billion and Lucasfilm for $4 billion. 

Birth of the Mega-Franchise

Comic books have long provided cinema with some notable heroes, like DC Comics's Superman and Batman. These two characters have appeared in thirteen movies (so far) since 1978, netting DC's parent company, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., somewhere in the region of $6 billion.

Marvel comics (DC's biggest rival) have many familiar faces too, but financial problems meant they were unable to produce their own movies without other studios’ assistance. In an attempt to cash in on their creations, Marvel sold the movie rights to many of their top tier superheroes to different studios. Sony secured arguably the biggest name in Spider-Man, while Fox snatched up The Fantastic Four and The X-Men (with Wolverine). (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Elektra and The Punisher were also dealt away).

Marvel eventually got back on its feet and launched its own studio. Without their A-List heroes, it had to risk everything on a character called Iron Man. The result propelled Robert Downey, Jr., to the top of the A-List, and Marvel were now a force to be reckoned with.

Marvel had a plan from the start, and it all hinged on Iron Man making a profit. Two further franchises were launched (Thor and Captain America), interlocking the characters and working towards one big story. This culminated in The Avengers, which is part of a trilogy of movies: a megafranchise!

Trivia Blast!! - Nine movies make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe Megafranchise, so far. Making almost $6.5 billion in a short six-year span, it is now the second most successful franchise in movie history. Harry Potter holds onto the #1 spot ($7.7 billion).

DC Comics is now producing a Superman movie that is intended to be the stepping stone towards a Justice League movie.

The Future

As the comic-book well dries up, studios will return to literature and revisiting past glories to bring the summer slate together.

Sadly, these blockbuster movies eat up theater screens, so that means there is a smaller selection of films to choose from – more money tied up in fewer films. The pressure on the studios to generate consistent money-making hits will increase until, like everything else, the bubble will burst. As in other times, failure could end a movie studio and then the whole industry will have to reassess to move forward. I wonder what type of movies we'll get then?

Trivia Blast!! - Despite appearing in a slew of successful movies between them, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie have had their biggest box office successes as voice actors in animated movies (Toy Story and Kung Fu Panda).



  1. They seem to be doing more and more series with books, too, and it's kind of a bummer. I don't like discovering a book series when 8 books have already been written. Plus, they tend to get formulaic after a while.

  2. Money makes the world go round, world go round, world go round! Sheesh, no wonder I'm dizzy!


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