What’s Saving The Summer Box Office?

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After a slow start to the season, Despicable Me 4 looks set to capitalize on the If-Garfield-Inside Out 2 family-film momentum.
Photo: Pixar

Sadness. Anxiety. Envy. Disgust. For Riley, the 13-year-old central character of Inside Out 2, these emotions dictate her puberty-roiled Sense of Self — resulting in a whiplash state of heightened emosh that motors the coming-of-age movie along. But after three weeks in wide theatrical circulation, Pixar’s sequel to its 2015-released Best Animated Feature Oscar winner is responsible for another overriding feeling around Hollywood: Joy. On Sunday, Inside Out 2 crossed $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide, becoming this year’s highest-grossing film and the first since Barbie to join the three comma club.

In addition to shattering a perceived “Pixar slump” (with the studio’s 2022 Toy Story spinoff, Lightyear, flopping and 2023’s Elemental clocking the worst debut in Pixar’s 28-year history), IO2 nearly doubled pre-release “tracking” estimates over its opening weekend and became the fastest animated title to cross the billion-dollar mark (achieving that milestone in just 19 days). Beyond standing as the House of Mouse’s latest assertion of IP dominance, however, the PG-rated Inside Out 2’s three-week run at No. 1 signals an unexpected shift in moviegoer habits over popcorn filmdom’s hottest months — a challenge by the tyke set to summer’s typical superhero hegemony. “Family movies have become the savior of box office this summer,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for Comscore. “Entering the summer, the marketplace was suffering a malaise: a year-to-date downturn, other movies not living up to expectations. If you had told me that Inside Out 2 was going to make a billion dollars after three weekends, I would have told you you were out of your mind.” (A Pixar insider tells me: “Yeah, we knew it was gonna make a lot of money. But just not that fast.”)

While grown-up fare like Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga and The Fall Guy seemingly failed to justify their respective berths in the summer blockbuster corridor, the animated The Garfield Movie overperformed its way to sharing the box-office top spot over Memorial Day weekend. And John Krasinski’s CGI-augmented kids flick, If, hung around North American theaters for a month and a half (defying a weaker-than-expected opening) to gross a respectable $109 million. Enter this weekend’s big, family-friendly megillah: Illumination’s Despicable Me 4, which tracking estimates have taking in between $100 million and $125 million over the five-day July 4 holiday frame.

As Dergarabedian is fond of pointing out, movies are a “momentum business”; butts in seats tend to result in more butts in seats; a hit movie effectively retrains audiences to enjoy the theatrical viewing experience, incentivizing them to come back for more. Hence, after a slow start this summer (with no Marvel title to kick things off in May for the first time since 2009), Despicable Me 4 appears set to capitalize on the IfGarfieldInside Out 2 family-film carryover momentum to become one of the season’s biggest hits.

The sixth feature installment of Illumination’s 14-year-old, $4.6 billion-grossing, Minions-maniacal animated franchise, DM4 also fits into a by-now entrenched pattern. The Universal studio division has historically drafted in the multiplex wake of a certain Disney-based competitor: Despicable Me 2 came out two weeks after Pixar’s $743 million–grossing Monsters University in July 2013, Illumination’s The Secret Lives of Pets dropped in July 2016 (just three weeks after Finding Dory, which took in more than $1 billion globally), and Minions: The Rise of Gru arrived at the multiplex in July 2022, roughly two weeks after Pixar’s Lightyear crash-landed with a thud. “Since Illumination came on the map with the Despicable franchise, they’ve put out films within a few weeks of Pixar releases in the summer,” says Shawn Robbins, founder and owner of Box Office Theory. “Moviegoing begets moviegoing. When families get in the habit — especially during the summer — the conversation turns to, ‘We really enjoyed that movie. What’s the next thing we can go see? What’s the next thing I can take my kids to?’ They feed each other in a lot of ways.”

Arriving as a kind of cinematic crescendo in a year when Hollywood is bracing for its worst summer in a quarter century — with experts predicting ticket sales will fall around $1 billion from the same period last year due to production shutdowns related to the writers’ and actors’ strikes — this Fourth of July weekend should have something for almost everyone genre-wise: art-house slasher-horror courtesy of A24’s MaXXXine; apocalyptic thrills from A Quiet Place: Day One (in its second week of theatrical release); and other June holdovers including Kevin Costner’s three-hour vanity-project flop, Horizon: An American Saga, and the Martin Lawerence–Will Smith buddy-cop comedy-actioner Bad Boys: Ride or Die (still drawing in respectable crowds after nearly a month in theaters). Faith-based audiences, meanwhile, can look forward to Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot, a church-based biodrama from Angel Studios, the Christian movie distributor behind last summer’s out-of-nowhere indie blockbuster Sound of Freedom.

But expect Despicable Me 4 and Inside Out 2 to claim the box office’s No. 1 and 2 spots. If 2022’s GentleMinions phenomenon (in which youngs showed up at Multiplexes for screenings of Minions: The Rise of Gru in Gru-cosplay suits, also sweeping social media with Gru-related shitposting) exposed a received truth about American cultural life, it is that Gen Z nostalgia can be a powerful word-of-mouth driver for movie attendance — Minions: TRoG bested Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon to become not only top banana among new films in wide release but the best North American Fourth of July box office on record.

“Illumination is that brand Gen Z grew up with — in the way millennials grew up with Pixar,” Robbins observes, adding: “They’ll have the top two movies. It’s kind of refreshing. Not only will there be two big animated movies at the top of the box office over a long holiday weekend, but it’s overall a healthy market with options for everyone.”

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