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Minions shows how 'merch' makes money for movies

The Minions
Jason LaVeris | FilmMagic | Getty Images

A movie's success is not solely determined by box office numbers or praise from the critics. Even if there's no Academy Award, a motion picture with memorable characters will win over the hearts—and wallets—of people everywhere.

Take the "Despicable Me" franchise. While Gru's misadventures are the center of the movies, his Minions also capture people's imagination.

"Despicable Me 2" made $970 million worldwide—almost double the original's gross return ($543 million)—and the release of "Minions" has the potential to further the brand image.

To see what other films have performed well both inside and outside of theaters thanks to their unforgettable characters, click ahead.

—By CNBC's Alexandra Gibbs

Disclosure: Universal and Illumination Entertainment are owned by NBCUniversal, a unit of Comcast, which also owns CNBC.

Harry Potter
Kurt Vinion | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

In 1997, J.K. Rowling opened kids' imaginations to the magical world of Hogwarts and it was not long before retailers tapped in to the phenomenon with a treasure trove of wands, spells and broomsticks.

From a final installment in 2011, the Harry Potter movies have made $7.7 billion at global box offices, but the merchandising side has been just as magical.

At least 450 million books have been published worldwide, while toy sales have made an estimated $7.2 billion, according to Scholastic and news website IBTimes.

The Harry Potter brand itself has an estimated worth of over $15 billion.

Star Wars
Carl De Souza | AFP | Getty Images

A franchise dating back almost 40 years, this epic space opera still attracts new fans.

Box Office Mojo estimates that the franchise (including reissues) amounts to over $4.5 billion, however, its toy licensing alone is almost worth triple that at $12 billion.

The entire revenue is estimated at $27 billion, including tickets, DVD sales and gaming. And that's before the release in December of the long-awaited "Star Wars: The Force Awakens".


Frozen
Olaf in Disney's Frozen On Ice.
Source: Feld Entertainment

As 2013's top-grossing film worldwide, it's no surprise that Disney's "Frozen" is capitalizing on its $1.27 billion box office success.

From mothers fighting over retail stock, to limited edition dolls auctioned for $10,000 on eBay; "Frozen's" reputation has helped expansion into other markets.

The official figure for the movie's merchandise may still be being calculated, yet Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, told CNBC, that their blockbuster quarter was down to a strategy that capitalized on Frozen's success. It was one of Disney's 11 franchises that drove over $1 billion in annual sales.


Cars
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Pixar's "Cars" may not be a top-grossing children's movie, however it is a merchandising success.

Ahead of the release of sequel "Cars 2," it was announced that the first movie in the franchise had generated $10 billion in global merchandise sales, with popularity increasing since its 2006 debut. Many critics argue that this retail success may have prompted the sequel.

John Lasseter, the film's director, told the BBC's "Newsbeat" program that "Cars" merchandise from macaroni to lampshades may have flourished because children loved the character.


Toy Story
Tom Starkweather/Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ahead of "Toy Story 3", Disney said that the franchise had already generated $9 billion in global retail sales since its 1995 inception, and leading up to the third installment, retailers had already sold more than 3.5 million units of merchandise for that film.

In a fourth-quarter earnings conference call, Disney's Iger said they were making a fourth film due to Toy Story 3's "tremendous success."

"'Toy Story 3" generated widespread critical acclaim as well as more than a billion dollars in global box office (sales) and almost $10 billion in retail sales, demonstrating that these wonderful characters are clearly just as relevant and beloved as ever," Iger said.


Spider-Man
Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Spider-Man made his first appearance in the early 1960s, but many attribute his continued popularity to blockbusters from Marvel and Columbia Pictures from 2002 onward.

This movie franchise, worth almost $4 billion (box office), has helped Spider-Man establish himself elsewhere, like Broadway.

In 2013, the franchise accumulated $1.3 billion in global retail sales, despite not releasing any films; according to "The Licensing Letter."

Read MoreSpider-Man swings into Marvel's cinematic universe

Fifty Shades of Grey
Paperback editions of the 'Fifty Shades' trilogy by E.L. James.The fourth book in the series is set to publish in June, 2015.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Released this February, the first movie installment of "Fifty Shades of Grey" has grossed almost $570 million, after selling more than 100 million copies from the franchise.

However, it wasn't just the film that has been cashing in on people's guilty pleasures, but retailers too. From baby grows to wine, retailers looked at every angle to bring in customers. Sex shops saw an increase in retail sales from the book's popularity worldwide and from the movie's release.

U.K. supermarket Tesco launched a line of lingerie, while Target and Ann Summers sold related merchandise like blindfolds, oils and sex toys around the time of the movie's release.

Read MoreKinky! Sex toy sales set for 50 Shades of Grey boost

Marvel
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Including "Avengers: Age of Ultron," Marvel Cinematic Universe has generated $8.5 billion in cinemas worldwide, since the release of "Iron Man" in 2008.

In 2009, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment, which has significantly increased popularity and revenue for both brands.

Age of Ultron grabbed $1.35 billion this Spring and the first Avengers installment was 2012's top-grossing movie globally.

Disney's Iger told CNBC in 2014 that the "Marvel brand has arrived and it's very healthy." Marvel was also highlighted as one of Disney's main success stories, along with "Frozen," in its 2014 annual report.

Marvel's U.S. toy sales grew by almost 13 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, NPD Group reported, while in the same year, the Avengers generated over a billion dollars in global retail sales.