Thanks to massive late-year pushes from sequels including Lionsgate's (NYSE:LGF-A) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, domestic movie-goers have spent more than $10.7 billion at the box office so far in 2013.
That's nearly a full percentage point ahead of the $10.61 billion at this point in 2012, which means 2013 could very well exceed last year's fresh $10.8 billion high mark.
But several other big-budget sequels played a large part in running up the score this year, including the likes of Disney (NYSE:DIS) Marvel's Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Disney Pixar's Monster's University, and both Despicable Me 2 and Fast & Furious 6 from Comcast Universal.
Naturally, the world's most powerful studios are hard at work bringing a new round of sequels your way next year. In order of appearance, here are the seven I think will command the most attention in 2014:
1. 300: Rise of an Empire
On March 7, Time Warner hopes to win big with another gory, quasi-historical action flick in 300: Rise of an Empire.
And if the runaway success of its 2007 predecessor is any indication, this latest graphic-novel-turned-movie-blockbuster should do just fine. Remember, despite limiting its audience with an unsurprising "R" rating, 300 still managed to earn an impressive $456 million worldwide on a relatively modest $65 million production budget.
Time Warner hasn't released official budget numbers this time around for Rise of an Empire. But given the sheer anticipation created by the massive looming battle at the end of the first film, it seems safe to bet they upped the ante in their efforts to pick up where 300 left off.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Next, Disney looks to continue its Marvel-driven box office domination with the April 4 launch of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
At first glance, it's tempting to think this sequel may not perform all that well when you remember Captain America: The First Avenger took home "just" $370.6 million globally in 2011. That's the second-lowest total of any film in the current Disney-Marvel cinematic universe, ahead of only the $263.4 million earned by 2008's The Incredible Hulk -- which was produced before Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, by the way -- and less than one quarter of the $1.52 billion achieved by Marvel's The Avengers last year.
But consider this: Thanks largely to its Avengers boost, Thor: The Dark World has already earned more than $628 million worldwide after just seven weekends in theaters, compared to $449.3 million over 16 weekends for the first Thor in 2011. If The Winter Soldier follows a similar upward trajectory a few months from now, it should easily be able to eclipse the $550 million mark when all is said and done.
3. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Speaking of potential billion-dollar comic book-based movies, you can be sure Sony (NYSE:SNE) Pictures wants to steal the show with its May 2 debut of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
And why not? Its risky reboot in The Amazing Spider-Man last year grabbed an impressive $752.2 million after 15 weekends on the big screen, nearly two-thirds of which came from foreign audiences. This time, the second installment should not only benefit from the ever-growing star power of leading lady Emma Stone, but also from having Jamie Foxx portraying Spidey's next supervillain antagonist, Electro.
All things considered, that's why I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see the The Amazing Spider-Man 2 near the top of 2014's highest-grossing films.
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Then on June 13, Dreamworks Animation (NASDAQ:DWA) plans to heat things up with How to Train Your Dragon 2.
At least Dreamworks had better hope so; By that time, How to Train Your Dragon 2 will be more than four years in the making (the sequel was announced in April 2010), and likely boasts a production budget at least as large as the $165 million required to create the first movie.
But that doesn't mean How to Train Your Dragon 2 is doomed to failure; the original grossed a solid $494.9 million globally over 17 weeks. What's more, Dreamworks was later able to successfully segue the franchise into a popular TV series named Dragons: Riders of Berk, which began airing on Cartoon Network in August 2012 and serves as an effective bridge between the first film and next year's sequel.
5. Transformers: Age of Extinction
On June 27, Viacom's (NASDAQ:VIAB) Paramount Pictures is bringing out the big guns with the fourth film of its blockbuster alien robot franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction.
And it's tough to blame them for sticking with it: The first three movies in 2007, 2009, and 2011 earned jaw-dropping worldwide grosses of $709.7 million, $836.3 million, and $1.12 billion, respectively. But there also exists significant risks this time around with regard to the film's widely publicized cast shake-ups -- and no, Bumblebee isn't going anywhere. Specifically, the franchise will move forward without lead actor Shia LaBeouf, and Age of Extinction. Audiences will be treated instead to healthy doses of Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, and Kelsey Grammar.
Call me crazy, but something tells movie-goers didn't spend more than a billion dollars last time to watch LaBeouf do his thing. As long as everybody's favorite automatons stay in play, Transformers: Age of Extinction should do just fine.
6. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Then on Nov. 21, Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment will continue their latest massive book-based franchise in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.
The first two Hunger Games films have proven massive successes, with Catching Fire most recently setting the record for highest-ever November debut, then following up in week-two by smashing the Thanksgiving weekend record set by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone 12 years ago. As of yesterday morning, Catching Fire had taken an impressive $778 million globally, well ahead of the $691.2 million earned by the first Hunger Games in early 2012.
In the end, barring our world's decent into the scary dystopian future The Hunger Games describes, there seems to be little standing in the way of Mockingjay, Part 1 from building on that momentum.
7. The Hobbit: There and Back Again
Finally, Time Warner will once again close out the year, with the Dec. 17 launch of The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Incidentally, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has absolutely dominated the box office since hitting the big screen on Dec. 13, grabbing a stellar $446.8 million worldwide during its first 15 days. But that's also well off the pace of 2012's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which enjoyed an even faster start and ultimately gained over $1 billion in gross ticket sales.
Given the estimated $250 million budget for There and Back Again, however, even a fraction of its predecessors' successes would be more than enough to prove worth Time Warner's while. So rest assured, Hobbit fans, because your favorite franchise isn't going anywhere.
There's more where that came from...
Keep in mind this certainly isn't an exhaustive list, and there are several other aspiring new franchises -- some even originating from the very same companies I named above -- which will attempt to steal the spotlight from these established winners.
Regardless of the competition, though, I'm still convinced each of the aforementioned titles will effectively continue their legacy in 2014.