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'Minions' takes over box office. Why $600M in marketing was worth it. (+video)

'Minions' earned an estimated $115.2 million in its opening weekend, giving the film the second-biggest animated opening of all time. The 'Despicable Me' prequel's commercial success was driven by widespread promotions on everything from bananas to Happy Meals.

Minions may just seem like a bunch of yellow, gibberish-speaking sidekicks who always get themselves into trouble, but they have proved that they wield money-making power:  Their first starring vehicle, the "Despicable Me" prequel "Minions" brought in an estimated $115.2 million this weekend – the second-biggest animated opening of all time.

While the total does not account for inflation, "Minions" is just the fourth animated film to make more than $100 million in its opening weekend, and it earned more than "Toy Story 3" ($110.3 million) and "Shrek 2" ($108 million) did in their opening weekends.

In the first two "Despicable Me" films, the Minions weren't the stars; they acted as assistants to villain Gru, voiced by Steve Carell. Their success in carrying a film comes in spite of a historically tough road for beloved sidekicks from hit franchises when they strike out on their own. Puss, the suave orange cat from the Shrek franchise, starred in the spin-off "Puss in Boots" in 2011, but that movie only brought in $34 million during its opening weekend. DreamWorks' "Madagascar" spinoff of the mischievous, crafty penguins made nearly $25.5 million in its first weekend in 2014.

So, how were these bumbling sidekicks were able to attract so many moviegoers? For one, the aggressive marketing campaign Universal Pictures did for the prequel clearly paid off. Promotional tie-ins featuring  Minions are everywhere, from McDonald’s Happy Meals to Amazon.com search results pages and General Mills cereal, to name a few. Bloomberg reported  that Universal's parent company, Comcast, and its partners spent a combined  $593 million publicizing the film, with less than half of the money going toward traditional TV and print ads. 

“Dozens of brands worldwide have jumped on the yellow bandwagon,” Jeff Gomez, chief executive officer of Starlight Runner, a film marketing company, told Bloomberg. Yellow Minions Tic Tacs? Check. Twinkies and iPhone cases? Check. Even Chiquita Bananas got on board with promotion the sidekicks – Minions sung a song called Banana to promote "Despicable Me 2."

Another part of the Minions’ commercial success is their bubbly, comical personality and appearance, says Chris Byrne, content director for toy review website TTPM.

“I think the characters were designed to be appealing,” he says in a phone interview. Besides Agnes – one of the main Despicable Me characters who is known for her love of unicorns – the Minions are supposed to be that heart-based character that people, especially kids, love. They are funny and cute, and they have a mischievous energy to them. “It was natural that kids related to them,” Mr. Byrne adds, and that has helped the Minions become a huge marketing force. Sales of toys based on the Minions characters are big business, he says. 

When it comes to merchandising, secondary characters can be a big help in compounding a franchise's commercial success. Olaf, the talking snowman from Disney’s "Frozen," has appeared alongside popular Anna and Elsa in many promotions and on merchandise, including stuffed dolls, lunch boxes, and pillows. In May 2015, Disney Consumer Products reported its revenue increased 10 percent during its second quarter to $971 million and its operating income increased 32 percent to $362 million, citing "Frozen" merchandise success as the reason for the increase.

Having marketable characters, whether it is the main star or the protagonist’s sidekick, is crucial for entertainment conglomerates like Disney. The Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA) reported retail sales of licensed merchandise – products bearing trademarked names and likeness of entities like cartoon characters, brands, and major sports teams – totaled $241.5 billion in 2014. The character and entertainment category garnered $107 billion in sales, accounting for 44.4 percent in retail sales, LIMA reported.

Despite their importance in supporting their franchises commercially, Byrne thinks the standalone success of the Minions may be hard to come by for other second bananas (no pun intended). Minions appealed to many people because they are so cute and adorable, but not all sidekicks work outside the context of the stories where they first appeared. Batman’s sidekick Robin, Byrne notes, does not garner the same admiration as Batman himself.

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