Analysis: Why Did 'Minions: The Rise Of Gru' Break Box Office Records While 'Lightyear' Fizzled?

Zinger Key Points
  • Universal held "Minions: The Rise Of Gru" for a year before releasing it.
  • Disney underestimated the continued impact of "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Jurassic World Dominion."

The animated feature “Minions: The Rise of Gru” from Comcast Corp.’s CMCSA Universal Pictures in conjunction with Illumination wrapped up the four-day Independence Day weekend with $125.1 million in U.S. ticket sales, a new record for that holiday’s box office returns.

In comparison, the other major animated film in theatrical release, “Lightyear” from the Walt Disney Co.’s DIS Pixar division, only generated $7.86 million over the four-day weekend and ranked sixth among the films on the big screen.

“Lightyear” absorbed $51 million when it opened over the June 17-19 weekend, but it ranked second among that weekend’s releases and has never been able to rise above that level. The film is now in its third week of theatrical release and is tanking while two films that have been in theaters for longer periods – the Paramount PARAA “Top Gun: Maverick” and Universal’s “Jurassic World Dominion” – have been in theatrical release six and four weeks, respectively, and still outpaced “Lightyear” among the holiday weekend’s top grossing films. To date, “Lightyear” has brought in $106.6 million in U.S. ticket sales.

How did “Minions: The Rise of Gru” create such a sensation? And where did Disney misstep with “Lightyear”? There are three key areas to understand how this situation occurred.

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Timing Is Everything: First, the timing of a film – especially a family-friendly animated feature – is crucial for its commercial viability. Universal initially planned to release “Minions: The Rise of Gru” for the Independence Day weekend in 2021 but opted to put the film on hold – a brilliant move, in retrospect, since U.S. theaters were only just starting to resume full operations after months of pandemic-induced lockdowns followed by periods of state-mandated limited audience capacities.

Also, the revived summer 2021 box office was being driven by action-adventure franchises and not family-focused productions. Universal had the capacity to place “Minions: The Rise of Gru” on the shelf for a year for a July 2022 release when the pandemic’s restrictions had already faded and families were eager for Fourth of July fun; it also helped that no other major film was opening in nationwide release at this time.

Disney opened “Lightyear” on June 17, one week after “Jurassic World Dominion” opened and four weeks after “Top Gun” premiered. In concept, this opening made sense – big films tend to snag the bulk of their audiences during an opening weekend and lose their box office draw with each passing weekend.

In this case, the opposite occurred. “Jurassic World Dominion” outpaced “Lightyear” to be that weekend’s top grossing film with $57.1 million in ticket sales, while “Top Gun: Maverick” brought in $40 million. Disney seriously miscalculated the impact of “Jurassic World Dominion” and “Top Gun: Maverick” on audiences – perhaps “Lightyear” would have registered more vibrancy if it debuted in August during a slower box office period?

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Merchandising Mania: If Disney knows how to do anything, it is creating a merchandising opportunity from its vehicles. This was evident with “Lightyear,” which has licensing deals with Mattel MAT, Lego and Lightlife, while the blog reported the "Lightyear" logo appeared on the Scuderia Ferrari cars, helmets and race suits of drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz during May's Monte Carlo Grand Prix – Leclerc and Sainz did cameo voice performances in the film's Italian and Spanish versions, respectively.

But Universal went the proverbial extra mile in its merchandising for “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” According to a Deadline report, the Minons turned up in advertising and merchandising with McDonald’s Corp. MCD, Levi Strauss & Co. LEVI, Dine Brands Global’s DIN IHOP restaurant chain, the soda brand Olipop, the suncare brand Supergoop! and the mealkit company HelloFresh. Two other highly ubiquitous advertisers also brought in the Minions for their first film cross-promotions: CarMax KMX and Liberty Mutual Insurance.

Bad Press Vs. Well-Dressed Press: “Lightyear” was the unique family-focused film that came into theaters carrying controversial baggage – this ranged from grumbles within Pixar that its previous three feature films went straight to Disney+ streaming to the question of replacing Tim Allen as the voice of the Lightyear character with Chris Evans to the inclusion of a same-sex kiss that resulted in the film being banned in China and 13 Muslim-majority markets including Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

In comparison, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” sparked nary a grumble from any corner of the moviegoing audience. Hypebeast reported on an unexpected viral trend that involved the so-called "#gentleminions" trend with groups of suit-clad teens documenting their viewings on social media, and some theaters in the U.K. and other overseas markets are now prohibiting these well-dressed young people from their venues out of concern that this trend will lead to disruptive behavior. However, there have been no reports of any rowdiness from this sartorial tomfoolery.

Photo: "Minions: The Rise of Gru," courtesy of Universal Pictures

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