‘Despicable’: Original idea a win for U

Toon's success bucks an industry trend.

The death of the original Hollywood film has been greatly exaggerated.

With a $56.4 million weekend bow, Universal’s animated hit “Despicable Me” proved that there’s still some life in what has become a rarity: the studio film that isn’t a sequel, remake or based on a book, vidgame, TV series or toy line.

The prevailing wisdom around the majors is that it has become too expensive to successfully market an unfamiliar property. Marketing execs insist they can save $50 million on a tentpole’s worldwide launch if they don’t have to explain the film’s concept to potential audiences.

The downside is audiences have begun to shun pics that are perceived as retreads, like “Sex and the City 2,” “The A-Team,” “Prince of Persia” and “MacGruber.” Box office is down 7.5% compared to last year from May though July 4, despite hit sequels “Toy Story 3,” “Iron Man 2” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.”

Though Universal wouldn’t divulge its strategy for breaking out the “Despicable” minions from the clutter, sources close to the campaign said the studio benefited most by embracing the freshness of the concept.

“A film doesn’t have to be based on a brand,” an insider said. “If you walk confidently and with purpose, people notice you. And people started to notice this film.”

A marketing topper at a rival studio estimates that Universal spent $60 million on its domestic marketing campaign, blanketing the airwaves and wrapping entire busses with “Despicable” messages.

“The spending was appropriate to their opening,” the exec said. “Meaning if they opened at $30 million, they would have overspent. They took a risk and it worked.”

But Universal insiders say they spent considerably less than $60 million, noting that the campaign looked more pricey than it was because a slew of high-profile marketers, including Best Buy, IHOP, American Express and Kodak, ponied up more than $75 million in the U.S. to help promote the 3D toon.

Best Buy and IHOP’s ads, in particular, have been unavoidable on TV, with each one starring the overall-wearing Twinkie-shaped creatures.

Though Monday’s actuals showed the pic’s performance was almost $4 million lower than the $60.1 million weekend estimate, it was still an impressive haul at $56.4 million. The first release for Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment cost $69 million, thanks to roughly $12 million in rebates from the French government. Pic was made at France’s McGuff Ligne studio.

While drops in actual B.O. figures happened across the board this weekend, a typical occurrence, “Despicable” repped a larger-than-usual dip.

Universal attributed the change to missing estimates from smaller circuits and the World Cup soccer tourney on Sunday. Studio said it used non-franchise toons like “Wall-E” and “How to Train Your Dragon” as comps for Sunday’s estimates. “Dragon” dropped 20% from Saturday to Sunday when it bowed on March 26; “Despicable” took a bigger hit that day (40%) during a more competitive frame.

According to the studio, fewer moviegoers paying higher 3D ticket prices also could have accounted for the film’s lower actuals. Toon earned a lower percentage of its grosses with 45% from 1,551 3D-equipped screens, a lower percentage than openings for previous 3D entries “Toy Story 3,” with 60%, and “The Last Airbender,” with 54%.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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