In a heated summer battle for family audiences, Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment appears poised to build on the box-office success of its “Minions” and “Despicable Me” films with “The Secret Life of Pets,” a comedy voiced by Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart in their animated feature film debuts.
While “Pets” will hit the market even as Walt Disney Co. and Pixar Inc.’s “Finding Dory” is going strong, the Illumination release is expected to take a big box-office bite out of the leading animated offering. The film is projected to take in $66 million its opening weekend and a total of $265 million domestically. Such success would be in step with Universal’s track record of hitting home runs with its animated features: Illumination accounts for three of the studio’s top 10 highest-grossing films.
It will come out after much of the momentum behind “Dory” has waned. The sequel to “Finding Nemo” had an estimated budget of $200 million and became the first animated film to surpass $300 million at the box office in its first 12 days of release.
The $75 million price tag for “Pets” is considerably lower than that of competitors in the animated marketplace – which means Illumination Chief Executive Chris Meledandri’s strategy of creating popular content without blockbuster-size budgets may still prove to be fruitful.
“Landing in ‘Finding Dory’s’ fourth weekend should distance itself enough in the marketplace to capitalize on what has been a great year for family movies,” Boxoffice.com senior analyst Shawn Robbins said in an email. “We’re bullish on the film’s chances to become one of the highest-grossing original films of 2016.”
That’s good news for Universal, last year’s box-office leader. Its $2.4 billion in gross receipts last year accounted for 21 percent of the market. Through the first half of this year, Universal is ranked fourth, behind Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros., respectively, with just 8 percent of the market share and $439 million in receipts.
“It’s difficult to compete with the studio’s previous years’ hits such as ‘Fast and Furious’ and ‘Jurassic World,’” said Amy Yong, an analyst with Macquarie Securities in New York who tracks Universal’s parent, Comcast Corp. “But I think ‘Pets’ could still be a sleeper summer hit.”
Illumination could use another feather in its cap as the studio looks to build momentum toward the closing of Comcast’s $3.8 billion acquisition of DreamWorks Animation later this year. The studio will become part of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, a division of NBCUniversal, based in Universal City.
Comcast, which received regulatory approval last month for the deal, is banking on combining Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks’ hit franchises such as “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” with Illumination’s inventory to usher in a new era as a family content powerhouse on multiple platforms. Meledandri will oversee the combined animated film unit while Katzenberg will move to a new role as head of the newly formed DreamWorks New Media division.
“Comcast is getting high-quality franchises,” said Corey Barrett, an analyst in the New York office of ITG Investment Research. “They’ll have a family entertainment portfolio that they can build on long-term across theme park segments and beyond.”
Animal-related films have been big this year. In addition to the success of “Dory,” Disney’s “Zootopia” has brought in more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office since its March release.
Universal is looking to leverage the appeal of “Pets” across platforms, seeking to tap deep pockets of audiences with four-legged family members at shopping centers as well as the multiplex.
The studio is partnering with PetSmart Inc. to promote the film. The brand development team at NBCUniversal worked with the retailer to create a multichannel shopping experience featuring characters from the movie.
The effort entails pushing “Pets”-related products through retail, digital, and word of mouth. As part of the cross-promotional marketing partnership, characters from the movie will “take over” PetSmart stores as well as its website, social media, and other digital channels in an effort to engage with moviegoers before and after the movie’s release.
The strategy is aimed at the U.S. market of pet owners, who spend more than $60 billion a year on pet-related purchases, according to the American Pet Products Association.