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News / Life / Entertainment

How the power of the Minions and Gen Z propelled the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise

By Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times
Published: July 7, 2024, 6:00am

LOS ANGELES — It was a spectacle (and for some, a menace) when droves of suit-clad young men showed up to theaters for 2022’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Against all odds, the #Gentleminions social media phenomenon showed that the Minions — up until that point, a staple of Facebook memes shared by very-online moms — could evolve as a cultural touchstone for that coveted demographic, Gen Z. The Minions had come full circle, staying relevant to the children who first met the yellow mischief-makers in 2010’s “Despicable Me” all the way through their young adult years.

It’s the kind of organic marketing that studios and theater owners can only dream of. Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment are counting on that multigenerational popularity to propel the franchise’s latest installment, “Despicable Me 4,” which came out in theaters Wednesday.

So far, the signs are good. The movie is tracking to garner at least $100 million in ticket sales for the U.S. and Canada for the five-day Fourth of July extended weekend.

The last “Minions” movie broke Fourth of July domestic box-office records and went on to make $940 million worldwide. This time around, families are already primed to hit the theaters with the recent success of Pixar’s “Inside Out 2,” which has now grossed more than $1 billion in global ticket sales.

“I’ve been 25 to 28 years in the business. I can’t remember something that created that much excitement for the audiences,” Francisco Schlotterbeck, chief executive of theater chain Maya Cinemas, said of the overall Minions craze. “The other thing I can compare it to is ‘Toy Story.’”

Theaters have been eager for good news. Exhibitors earlier this year were walloped by a dearth of blockbusters, partly due to Hollywood’s long summer of strikes in 2023, which delayed multiple high-profile titles. Though a string of recent hits has brought relief, with “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” “Inside Out 2” and “A Quiet Place: Day One,” domestic revenue remains down 19% from last year, according to Comscore.

“Despicable Me 4” is expected to continue the momentum. Maya Cinemas’ ticket presale numbers for the sequel are trending up, and Schlotterbeck is expecting sales that are “triple of a normal week.” Family-friendly movies, like the “Despicable Me” franchise, do especially well with Latino audiences, he said, which his chain is geared toward.

After a tough first half of the year with limited films to show, he’s expecting better sales for the months ahead, especially with family films such as “Moana 2,” “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and “Wicked” coming down the pipeline.

“All these big family titles will help,” said Schlotterbeck, whose chain has five locations in California and one in Las Vegas. “It’s pretty important to have these kind of very well-known franchises.”

Theaters are preparing for all kinds of Minions fans to flood the gates this weekend. Dine-in theater chain Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas USA plans to raffle off themed baby carriers that hold a popcorn bucket to tie in with supervillain Gru’s new role as a dad, said Luis Olloqui, company chief executive.

“Having the previous ‘Minions’ movie was really good, in terms of performance,” he said. “We saw that excitement among the people going to the movie dressing up and making it more of an event. This time, we are expecting kind of the same.”

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The cross-generational popularity of the Minions stems from their cute appearances and humorous antics. But part of the appeal is also that they’re a bit of a blank slate, said Carrie Wilson-Brown, an instructor at the University of Illinois’ College of Media. In the same way that Sanrio icon Hello Kitty has advertised both motor oil and diamond necklaces and regularly wears all teams’ baseball caps, the Minions have become a canvas on which you can project whatever you want.

Minions are on all manner of merchandise these days. There are Minion Chia pets, Minion mugs, Minion sandwich makers and Minion toasters. For Los Angeles residents, there’s even the giant Minion that peeks over the edge of a Universal Studios parking structure to spy on the 101 Freeway (which has spawned memes of its own).

“You can infer anything out of it,” Wilson-Brown said. “They can even travel culturally, not from generation to generation, but from country to country because they don’t speak a particular language.”

It’s how the Minions joined the front lines of Facebook mom memes, which typically pair a picture of a Minion with unrelated sayings such as “I didn’t fall, the floor just needed a hug” or “I’ve been hiding from exercise. I’m in the fitness protection program.”

But the #Gentleminions craze was a turning point, when Gen Z consumers tried to take back the Minions of their childhood, Wilson-Brown said.

“You note your popularity specifically when you get internalized into meme culture,” she said. “In terms of ‘Despicable Me’ and the Minions specifically, all of a sudden, they kind of transcended out of the film into internet culture.”

Companies face a delicate dance while trying to court Gen Z audiences, who have expendable income they’re willing to plunk down on pop culture merchandise. Try too hard to appeal to them, and it seems inauthentic; try too little, and it looks like the product isn’t actually meant for them.

“Film companies and traditional media are desperately trying to constantly see what Gen Z-ers are producing in a cultural milieu, but in many respects they’re trailing behind them,” Wilson-Brown said.

Will the #Gentleminions return for a second ride?

“I’d be hard-pressed to believe they’re going to be re-creating that same thing over and over again,” Wilson-Brown said. “Because that was so organic, it’s really hard to then predict … what they are going to end up doing to up the ante, culturally, for this particular film.”

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