Success in the film industry revolves around building blockbuster franchises. A look at the highest-grossing films of all time reveals seven of the 10 biggest earners to be installments in successful franchises. Of the outliers, Twenty-First Century Fox's (NASDAQ:FOXA) Avatar is due to receive three sequels in the coming years and Disney (NYSE:DIS) will almost certainly announce a follow-up to its hugely successful Frozen. That leaves Titanic as the only film among the top 10 earners list that won't eventually be part of a successful franchise.
While sequels are the name of the game, studios are always looking for promising new properties with the potential to strike box office gold and spawn an ongoing series. Here are five 2014 films that could shape the year's box office results and lay the foundations for successful ongoing series.
The Maze Runner
Young adult literature has been a goldmine for Hollywood, with the "Harry Potter," "Twilight," and "The Hunger Games" franchises all generating billions of dollars in box office grab. While Lionsgate's Divergent looks to fall short of the incredible success of top book-to-film mega-earners, it's still putting up solid numbers. Fox's The Maze Runner looks to cash in on the adaption trend with a plot that bears a notable resemblance to The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Where The Maze Runner differs from its spiritual predecessors is its mostly male cast. The most recent young-adult movie success stories were largely female-driven affairs, so studios will be watching to see how a male-skewed spin on the craze performs. The film won't match the earnings of The Hunger Games, but The Maze Runner has a good shot at justifying a franchise. It opens in U.S. theaters on Sept. 19.
Disney's May 30 opener Maleficent offers a different take on the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty. The new film stars Angelina Jolie in a role that sees the titular witch portrayed more as a misunderstood anti-heroine than the classic, one-dimensional villainess. Jolie's turn as Maleficent is already generating considerable buzz, and the film's visuals look to make good use of the fairytale theme and setting.
Look to 2010's Alice in Wonderland for an indication of the heights that Maleficent might reach. That mystical and slightly darker reimagining of a storied children's tale was built on a similar formula and brought in more than $1 billion at the global box office.
DreamWorks Animation's (NASDAQ:DWA) biggest film of the year will be How to Train Your Dragon 2, but the studio's annual performance is also dependent on whether its alien invasion flick Home becomes a hit. The studio's last two alien-centric releases produced solid but not spectacular results -- 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens generated approximately $381 million and 2010's Megamind raked in approximately $322 million. Neither film performed well enough to warrant a sequel.
Home will feature the voice talents of Rihanna, Jim Parsons, Jennifer Lopez, and Steve Martin in a colorful adventure that tells a story of inter-species friendship. If the film fails to be a hit for DreamWorks, expect the studio to lay off the alien fare for a while. The film opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 20 and will be distributed by Fox.
Big Hero 6
Disney's animation studios have been on an undeniable roll lately. The House of Mouse has also shown itself to be dominant on the highly important superhero front. Take these two trends in tandem and there seems to be little reason to doubt the company's Nov. 7 opener Big Hero 6.
Details about the film are still scarce, but the plot is said to heavily feature superheroics and giant fighting robots. 2013's Pacific Rim showed that battling automatons can have huge draw in international markets, and animated films have proven to be reliable earners, so it's not unreasonable to assume that filmgoers could soon be looking forward to a still-hypothetical Big Hero 7.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy represents Disney's first foray into adapting a comic property that most film audiences have never heard of. The film boasts an impressive cast in Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Benicio Del Toro, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel. What's more, the property (particularly the wisecracking vermin Rocket Raccoon) seems ripe for merchandising opportunities.
The film made its introduction to audiences with a trailer that was perhaps overly goofy, but there's a lot of marketing time between now and the film's Aug. 1 release. The comedy-actioner will almost certainly be buoyed by its connection to the Avengers universe, with the Guardians set to feature prominently in the still-far-off Avengers 3.
What does 2014 mean for the film industry?
2013 currently stands as the highest grossing year in film history, and there are big expectations for the remainder of this year. Disney has already scored a huge hit with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Fox and Sony will put forth new installments in their biggest respective superhero franchises with the hopes that they will justify expanded universes and create new revenue streams. But long-term success may be better measured by the performance of new IPs.
2015 will be the year of massive sequels and will almost certainly establish a new earnings gold standard. Retrospect may cast 2014 as a building year. Disney is looking to Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Big Hero 6 to follow up billion-dollar earner Frozen, while DreamWorks Animation and Fox are hoping that Home earns a place as an ongoing property that can help them keep pace in the animation game.
And the winner is...
A quick glance at the remaining film lineup for 2014 reveals Disney to be in great shape on the movie front. The entertainment giant looks to enjoy distinct advantages over competitors like Fox, DreamWorks, and Time Warner in terms of both new and established properties. Making things even better for Mickey and company, 2015 is packed with projects that should make it the studio's most explosive year ever.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.