Box office watchers were worried that family audiences had all but forgotten about movie theaters… until Gru and his mischievous yellow friends came along. As it turns out, parents with young kids weren’t abandoning their local cinemas in the wake of the pandemic. Most of them just didn’t care to watch Disney’s Pixar film “Lightyear.”
That’s the takeaway after “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” the fifth installment in Universal and Illumination’s popular “Despicable Me” franchise, put box office expectations to shame, opening to $125 million over the extended July 4th holiday weekend. It comes a few weeks after “Lightyear” struggled to stir enthusiasm with its $51 million debut. After three weeks on the big screen, the latest Pixar movie has grossed just $106 million at the domestic box office, less than “Minions 2” generated in three days.
“‘Minions’ shattered the idea that families don’t want to go back to the theaters,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “You just have to give them a reason to go.”
Given the lackluster turnout for the “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear” there was uncertainty regarding opening weekend ticket sales for “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” which was expected to make $70 million to start. That would have been a dispiriting result for the lucrative series.
In the COVID era, there have been successes of the kid-friendly variety, like Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” Universal’s “Sing 2” and Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but “Lightyear’s” shortcomings tossed some serious doubt on the willingness of family audiences to return to multiplexes. In pre-pandemic times, it’s a demographic that’s vital in driving overall box office revenues.
Impressively, “Rise of Gru” almost matched its predecessor, 2015’s Minions” ($115 million over three days), in terms of opening weekend returns. Ticket sales for “Minions: The Rise of Gru” also smashed Independence Day box office record, showing that families will come out for a film they deem worthy.
What exactly constitutes a film that’s worth leaving the house to see? It’s a valid question these days, one that Hollywood is rapidly taking notes on as it tries to find the answer. After all, “Minions” (which landed an “A” CinemaScore) was not all that much better received than “Lightyear” (which was graded a still-promising “A-” CinemaScore), though the latest “Despicable Me” entry likely benefitted as a sequel in a long-enduring and multi-billion-dollar earning franchise. Though “Lightyear” exists in the wildly successful “Toy Story” universe, the spinoff sci-fi adventure had only a nebulous connection to Woody, Mr. Potato Head and the rest of the anthropomorphic crew in the Pixar series.
Moreover, “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” like its franchise predecessors, was praised by critics for its inherently goofy and irreverent tone. Directed by Kyle Balda, the newest installment takes place as a young Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) and his tiny yellow henchmen test the waters of supervillain life. “Lightyear,” which faced backlash from conservatives for displaying a same-sex kiss, wasn’t exactly lauded as a laugh-a-minute comedy. Industry experts suggest “Lightyear” may not have provided the kind of escapism that can keep the attention of younger audience members.
“People want to go see something that is uproariously funny,” Derbarabedian says. “And ‘Lightyear is a very serious piece of storytelling. It’s not as kid-oriented as those silly crazy wacky minions.”
It didn’t hurt that “Minions: The Rise of Gru” inspired a viral TikTok trend over the weekend, encouraging teenage moviegoers (a.k.a. #GentleMinions) to attend their local multiplex dressed in suits. Some screenings turned rowdy, forcing a few cinema chains to ban customers clad in formal attire.
As kids who grew up with the Minions grow up, 34% of ticket buyers were ages 13 to 17, according to PostTrak surveys. That’s a massive jump from 2017’s “Despicable Me 3,” the last franchise entry to hit theaters, in which only 8% of opening weekend patrons were between 13 and 17. For “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” adults and their offspring still comprised the largest percentage of audience members, with children under 10 accounting for 12% of attendees and parents making up 23% of ticket sales. However, those stats indicate the newest “Minions” movie is playing to a broader audience, which likely helped the film beat initial box office expectations.
“A very diverse audience showed up for Rise of Gru over the holiday weekend, and the out-of-left-field #GentleMinions social media trend may have further bolstered that momentum,” says Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “For many families, this was their first big screen outing together since before the pandemic, so it makes sense that an animated comedy for all ages would turn into the beneficiary as moviegoers seek escapism amid other economic and social challenges going on in the world right now.”
For Illumination, the reception is an unadulterated triumph and reaffirms the company and its founder Chris Meledandri’s penchant for finding commercially viable properties while keeping costs low to maximize profits. Pixar, which seems to be going through something of an identity crisis, may have more critical acclaim (and Oscars) but Meledandri’s track record in recent years has been one of great consistency with not just Gru and company but also “Sing 2” and “The Grinch.” Not everything from the animation studio strikes gold; 2012’s “The Lorax” and 2019’s “The Secret Life of Pets 2” each brought back lackluster returns.
The riches don’t stop at the box office. From Legos to ketchup packets, the minions were plastered on all kinds of ancillary goodies.
“[‘Minions’] is one of the few franchises outside the Disney umbrella that snares all demographics,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It also helps that advertising partners are equally enamored with the multi-billion dollar miscreants, as Disney is usually the monarch of merch. Not so in the case of ‘Minions,’ which have taken pop culture by storm.”
Looking to the rest of the year, box office watchers will continue to keep a close eye on all things animation. In 2019, the medium contributed $2.6 billion at the domestic box office and $4.57 billion worldwide, amounting to roughly 16% of the year’s global box office returns. Several cartooned movies in 2019 — including “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 4,” and “Frozen II” — generated more than $1 billion each. So far, not a single animated film in pandemic times has come close to reaching that benchmark.
“Family animation, more than any other genre, has struggled to find its footing during the pandemic,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “Between 2012 and 2019, we had a run of some of the most critically and commercially successful animation series in the history of the business, but we haven’t had anything like that during the last two and a half years.”
Still, a better-than-expected turnout for “Minions: The Rise of Gru” suggests there is reason to be feeling more optimistic.
“The industry is breathing a huge sigh of relief,” Bock says. “The upside: audiences are officially back in full. The downside: no more blaming pandemic woes for underperforming titles at the box office.”