With $10.5 million on Thursday, Universal and Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru has earned $164 million in its first week in domestic theaters. That makes it, in just seven days, the biggest so-called Covid-era animated grosser, passing the $161 million domestic cume of Illumination’s Sing 2 from last Christmas. And with around $308 million worldwide, it is a few days away from passing Sing 2’s $405 million global cume to nab the same relative milestone worldwide as well. Meanwhile, Top Gun: Maverick earned around $3 million on Thursday for a new $581 million domestic cume. The Tom Cruise-led legacy sequel will likely cross $600 million domestic on Sunday as it aims for $1.175 billion global by the weekend’s end. With Minions 2 potentially following Minions and Despicable Me 3 past the $1 billion mark, they may be the summer’s top global earners. That would be ghoulishly ironic since they were the last “big” delayed-by-Covid releases to open theatrically.
Top Gun 2 and Minions 2 were supposed to open back-to-back in summer 2020.
Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick was supposed to open in the summer of 2019. It was pushed to the summer of 2020, arguably due to a combination of wanting not to rush the production and not wanting to get steamrolled by Disney’s “Bob Iger is stepping down” fire sale of a 2019 slate. Had things gone as planned, it would have opened on June 26, 2020. One week later, the big Independence Day release was to be Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, which was expected (alongside Universal’s F9) to be the summer’s most likely $1 billion-plus earner. Two years later, both films debuted to best-case-scenario box office (or, in Maverick’s case, far better than we would have expected pre-Covid) and ended the so-called Covid-era of box office punditry. The two mega-hits, one playing to older and irregular moviegoers and the other playing to kids and families, cemented the end of grading any theatrical release on a curve.
We’ve known since last Memorial Day that tentpole cinema had returned to normal.
That doesn’t mean we’re not still dealing with Covid or that decisions made since March of 2020 won’t have commercial consequences. But frankly, since A Quiet Place part II last Memorial Day, which earned $161 million domestic from a $57 million Fri-Mon debut and $297 million worldwide, tentpoles have been “safe.” Most previously surefire biggies (Venom 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Jurassic World 3, Doctor Strange 2, The Batman, etc.) have earned about as much as they would have in non-Covid times. Some (F9, No Time to Die) earned a little less; some (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick) earned a little more. And frankly, a handful of releases that would have been long shots (Dune, Free Guy, Godzilla Vs. Kong, Uncharted, Scream, etc.) aggressively overperformed. The only seemingly surefire biggies that tanked were, scarily enough, the Disney toons (Raya and the Last Dragon, Encanto and Lightyear), which is why I’ve been shouting to the hilltops about Disney+.
We’ve spent two years hearing how older moviegoers and families were gone for good.
We’ve repeatedly heard that irregular and older moviegoers, which were already even more irregular since around 2016, preferring to watch non-event films at home on VOD or streaming (or not watching them at all in favor of streaming television), were a permanent commercial casualty of the pandemic. Ditto for families and young kids, who also had become used to watching kid-targeted shows and movies via VOD and streaming to the point where original animation had mostly floundered since Coco cracked $800 million in late 2017. When you’re a family of five, it’s much cheaper to pay $30 for Disney+ Premier Access to watch Jungle Cruise on opening night, watch Space Jam: A New Legacy on HBO Max or to shell out $20 to rent The Croods: A New Age on PVOD just weeks after its theatrical opening day. For that matter, it’s more convenient for adults with a good home theater set-up to wait until HBO Max to watch The Last Duel or Nightmare Alley.
The non-tentpole started to make a comeback in early 2022.
Through that prism, it was tempting to view the year-end commercial/theatrical failures of One Night in SoHo, West Side Story, King Richard, and others as a sign that grown-up moviegoing was doomed. Most of the year-end awards contenders, quality notwithstanding, were commercial coin tosses in pre-Covid times. However, over/under $17 million domestic was near as expected for Paul Thomas Anderson’s star-free Licorice Pizza and Wes Anderson’s lower-profile The French Dispatch. In early 2022, as Spider-Man: No Way Home swung to $804 million domestic and $1.9 billion global with little competition, we started seeing signs of non-tentpole life. Uncharted and Sonic 2 both became rare $400 million-plus video game movies. Channing Tatum’s Dog earned $61 million domestic, while Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s The Lost City legged past $105 million domestic. Everything, Everywhere All at Once became The Greatest Showman of indie gems, earning $66 million domestic to become A24’s biggest grosser. Even Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore bombed with an as-expected $400 million worldwide cume.
Maverick and The Rise of Gru shattered records by attracting the demographics that were allegedly never coming back to theaters.
Top Gun: Maverick played (partially but not exclusively) to older and irregular moviegoers to break the record for a Memorial Day weekend opener with $160.5 million. Six weeks later, Minions: The Rise of Gru played (partially but not exclusively) to kids and families (including 34% between the ages of 13 and 17, credit generational nostalgia) to shatter the record for a Fri-Mon Independence Day weekend debut with $123 million. This isn’t “on a Covid curve” or “a successful disappointment.” These films broke longstanding box office records while explicitly targeting the same audiences allegedly lost to streaming permanently. Doctor Strange 2 became the third-biggest no-Iron Man/Spider-Man MCU flick worldwide without China or Russia. Jurassic World Dominion is passing $850 million globally. Elvis will likely pass Rocketman domestically ($96 million) and worldwide ($195 million). The only reason to be pessimistic about theatrical is the lack of regular releases between early August (Bullet Train) and mid-September (The Woman King).
Will irregular moviegoers stick around?
The critical question, once we start getting a more regular calendar, is whether the irregular moviegoers who have shown up this year for the Tom Cruise sequel or the Illumination prequel have rediscovered the value of a communal theatrical exhibition. Elvis (passing $80 million yesterday), which got a boost when its trailer played before Top Gun 2, suggests hope. Maybe Paws of Fury will overperform, and adult women will show up to Where the Crawdads Sing next week. Maybe, come September, those claiming to want inclusive star-driven movies will show up for Don’t Worry Darling, The Woman King, Bros and See How They Run. However, barring a change in circumstances, Covid will no longer be the culprit for underperforming releases. Minions 2 and Top Gun 2 were the final remnants of a Covid-delayed 2020 slate, and they (commercially) were a case of saving the best for last. They also proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that audiences will still show up in droves for the right movie.