I somewhat arbitrarily define a franchise as three or more movies, so no stand-alone movies here, regardless of their greatness (i.e. Blade Runner isn't on this list). There's another list to be made of the single shots; this list is for series of some substance. And speaking of substance, it isn't enough to have one really fucking great movie and a couple more meh-to-terrible ones, either. The films don't all have to be great, but at least three of them needed to be in order to make this list. Otherwise, I just considered the franchise's impact on both geek culture specifically and the larger culture, and weighted that with the likelihood that any given gaggle of geeks would have strong opinions about the series. With that explanation, on to the selections.
5) George Romero's Dead trilogy
May as well start with the most controversial selection, don't you think? I absolutely believe that horror is a big part of geekdom, and whatever your taste in horror — or even if you don't like it at all — it's hard to argue that there's any horror movie more important to the genre's history and development than the original Night of the Living Dead. That film revolutionized what a horror movie could be and how a horror movie could be made, and it still holds up well today, despite being more than forty years old. The next two direct sequels — Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead — are just as good, and nearly as important to film history, especially Dawn. Plus, zombies? A big deal these days, and the kind of zombie we all know and love was invented by Romero.
4) Lord of the Rings
Spoiler alert: If you make a faithful and loving adaptation of the biggest fantasy novel series of all time, you earn a spot on the film-franchise list. Those first three movies were really fucking good, too, and if The Hobbit hadn't been such a money grab (seriously, three movies for one short book?), Peter Jackson's love letters to J.R.R. Tolkien would rate a spot or two higher. As it is, the franchise has helped keep Tolkien's masterpiece front and center even as more great, epic fantasies emerge to challenge its role at the top. The fact that you don't need to have read a single word of the novels helps earn the series a spot in the top five, too. (But seriously, you should read the books.)
3) Marvel Cinematic Universe
I'm fudging just a bit here, because I'm lumping in not just the actual, branded Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also the other Marvel films that are also great and that, in a less stupid world, would share the universe. In other words, yes, The Avengers and its tie-in films, but also all the good Marvel movies that aren't technically part of the MCU. (For my money, that's the original Spider-Man, plus the first two X-Men and Days of Future Past.) Sure, not everything in the official MCU is great, but enough of it is, and it's great for both comics fans who want to see their favorite characters at the movies and movie fans who don't know shit about comics. Plus, I'm pretty sure Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Iron Man, and it's nice to see someone fulfill his destiny.
2) Star Trek
The worlds of Gene Roddenberry aren't for every geek, but they're certainly pretty goddamn important to most of us. I've seen something like nine Star Trek movies in theaters, which I am certain is a record for any series. In all honesty, Star Trek always felt more at home on television than in the movie theater, but that didn't prevent at least a third of the films from being truly great. Yeah, a lot of them sucked, but some of them are so damn good it'll make you cry. I'll put Wrath of Khan against any science fiction movie anywhere, and the same could be said for The Voyage Home and First Contact to a slightly lesser degree. The rest are a mixed bag, but only one or two are unwatchable (the less said about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Generations, the better). The series even has its own prequels-like controversy now, thanks to JJ Abrams taking over the helm of the reboot, bitterly dividing fans. (For the record, I thought his first Trek was fine, if a little out of joint with Trek's past.)
1) Star Wars
Did I say the most controversy would come from my inclusion of Romero's Dead films? Silly me! No matter which Star I chose to put first — Trek or Wars — there's going to be a lot of angry nerds. Personally, I prefer the generally more cerebral approach of Trek, and the prequels did some irreparable harm to my Star Wars ardor, but the reality is this: Kids fucking love Star Wars. It's the gateway drug to geekery for three or four generations of nerds now, and that can't be discounted. Both did plenty to change the popular culture in their own way, but Star Wars gets the nod for the kid thing. And also lightsabers. I can imagine a world without lightsabers, but I sure as hell don't want to.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.