Box office viewers were worried that family audiences had all but forgotten about the cinemas… until Gru and his mischievous yellow friends showed up. As it turns out, parents with young children didn’t abandon their local cinemas in the wake of the pandemic. Most of them just didn’t want to see Disney’s Pixar film Lightyear.
That’s the bottom line after Minions: The Rise of Gru, the fifth installment in the popular Despicable Me franchise from Universal and Illumination, hits a $125 million box office over the July 4 bank holiday weekend the start went. It comes a few weeks after “Lightyear” struggled to garner enthusiasm with its $51 million debut. After three weeks on the big screen, the latest Pixar film has grossed just $106 million at the domestic box office, less than Minions 2 in three days.
“‘Minions’ shattered the idea that families don’t want to go back to theaters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore analyst. “You just have to give them a reason to go.”
Given the lackluster turnout for Toy Story spinoff Lightyear, there was uncertainty about the opening of weekend ticket sales for Minions: The Rise of Gru, which was expected to gross $70 million. That would have been a disheartening result for the lucrative series.
The COVID-era has seen hits 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 left serious doubts about its readiness advent of family audiences to return to multiplexes. In the pre-pandemic era, this is a demographic that is critical to increasing overall box office receipts.
Impressively, Rise of Gru almost matched its 2015 predecessor Minions ($115 million over three days) in terms of opening weekend earnings. Ticket sales for Minions: The Rise of Gru also broke the Independence Day box office record, showing that families will be coming out for a movie they think is worthy.
What exactly makes a film worth leaving the house for? Today, that’s a valid question that Hollywood is quick to jot down as it tries to find the answer. After all, “Minions” (which landed an “A” CinemaScore) wasn’t much better received than “Lightyear” (which earned a still-promising “A-” CinemaScore), although the latest “Despicable Me” entry likely benefited as a continuation of a long-running and multi-billion dollar franchise. Though Lightyear exists in the hugely 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.
Additionally, like its franchise predecessors, Minions: The Rise of Gru was praised by critics for its inherently goofy and irreverent tone. Directed by Kyle Balda, the latest installment sees a young Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) and his tiny yellow henchmen testing the waters of supervillain life. “Lightyear,” which was criticized by conservatives for featuring a same-sex kiss, wasn’t exactly hailed as a comedy that’s laughing every minute. Industry experts posit that “Lightyear” may not have offered the kind of escapism that can sustain the attention of younger viewers.
“People want to see something that’s hilarious,” says Derbarabedian. “And ‘Lightyear’ is a very serious piece of storytelling. It’s not as kid-centric as those goofy, wacky lackeys.”
It didn’t hurt that Minions: The Rise of Gru inspired a viral TikTok trend over the weekend, encouraging teen moviegoers (aka #GentleMinions) to visit their local multiplex dressed in suits. Some screenings got loud, forcing some cinema chains to ban customers in formal attire.
Because kids who grew up with the Minions grow up, 34% of ticket buyers were between the ages of 13 and 17, according to PostTrak surveys. That’s a huge jump from 2017’s Despicable Me 3, the last franchise entry in theaters, which saw just 8% of its opening weekend viewers aged 13-17. For Minions: The Rise of Gru, adults and their descendants still made up the largest percentage of viewers, with children under 10 accounting for 12% of attendance and parents accounting for 23% of ticket sales. However, these stats indicate that the latest “Minions” movie is playing to a wider audience, which likely helped the film exceed initial box office expectations.
“A very diverse audience turned out for Rise of Gru over the holiday weekend, and the out-of-left-field #GentleMinions social media trend may have further fueled that momentum,” said Shawn Robbins, principal analyst at Box Office Pro. “For many families, this was their first trip to the cinema together since the pandemic, so it makes sense that an all-ages animated comedy would become the beneficiary as moviegoers seek escape amid other economic and social challenges in the world now.”
For Illumination, the reception is an undiluted 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 appears to be going through some sort of identity crisis, may have more critical acclaim (and Oscars), but Meledandri’s track record over the past few years has been one of great consistency, not just with Gru and Co. but also with Sing 2 and Spoilsport. Not everything from the animation studio is worth its weight in gold; 2012’s “The Lorax” and 2019’s “The Secret Life of Pets 2” each returned lackluster returns.
The wealth doesn’t stop at the box office. From Legos to packets of ketchup, the minions were plastered with all sorts of ancillary items.
“[‘Minions’] is one of the few franchises outside of the Disney umbrella that encompasses all demographics,” said Jeff Bock, analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It also helps that advertising partners are equally infatuated with the billionaire villains, since Disney is usually the monarch of merch. Not so with ‘Minions,’ which has taken pop culture by storm.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, box office viewers will continue to keep their eyes on all things animation. In 2019, the medium contributed $2.6 billion at the domestic box office and $4.57 billion worldwide, accounting for approximately 16% of the year’s global box office earnings. Several animated films in 2019 — including The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and Frozen II — each grossed more than $1 billion. So far, not a single animated film has even come close to reaching this benchmark in times of the pandemic.
“More than any other genre, family animation is struggling to gain a foothold during the pandemic,” says David A. Gross, who runs film consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research. “Between 2012 and 2019 we had some of the most critically and commercially successful animated series in the company’s history, but we haven’t had anything like this in the last two and a half years.”
Still, a better-than-expected turnout for Minions: The Rise of Gru suggests there’s reason to be more optimistic.
“The industry breathes a sigh of relief,” says Bock. “The advantage: the audience is officially back. The downside: No more blaming pandemic issues for underperforming titles at the box office.”