By Brent Lang
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - "The Secret Life of Pets" dominated the weekend box office, racking up a massive $103.2 million and launching the first new franchise of the summer.
Its success is a feather in the cap for Illumination chief Chris Meledandri, confirming his status among the ranks of animation giants. The family film, which explores what dogs, cats and other animal companions do while their owners are busy at work, cost an economical $75 million to produce, roughly half of what most studios spend making animated movies. Universal is backing the picture, which launched across 4,370 locations.
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"Illumination just has a way of creating 'want to see' movies," said Nick Carpou, Universal's domestic distribution chief. "They make movies that resonate with audiences."
And ones that spawn toylines. The cuddly creatures that populate "Pets" seem tailor made to sell stuffed animals and t-shirts, creating a financial windfall for the studio. The film deftly exploited dog and cat obsessed moviegoers to appeal to both parents and children. In the United States alone, Americans are expected to spend more than $62 billion in 2016 on their pets.
"Somebody at Illumination is popping the champagne and pouring out the Kibble," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. "The love that people have for their fish, their bird, their dogs, or their hamsters is demonstrated by their insatiable appetite for a movie like this."
"The Secret Life of Pets" easily supplanted Disney and Pixar's "Finding Dory" from first place on the box office charts -- a ranking it has held for the three previous weeks. The sequel to "Finding Nemo" slid to second place with $20.4 million, having made $422.6 million to lap "Captain America: Civil War" as the highest-grossing film of the year on a domestic basis. It also ranks as the highest-grossing animated film in North America, unseating "Toy Story 3."
The weekend's other new release, Fox's "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," opened to $16.6 million at 2,982 sites for a fourth place finish. The comedy about a pair of party animal brothers (Zac Efron and Adam DeVine) who enlist two women (Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza) to accompany them to their sister's wedding, cost $33 million to make. Chernin Entertainment produced the film. Its audience was nearly evenly split between the genders, with women making up 52% of ticket buyers.
"We were very opportunistic about this date," said Chris Aronson, Fox's domestic distribution chief. "This seemed to be a good time to release an R-rated comedy."
"Pets" will post the sixth-best opening of 2016 following "Captain America: Civil War," "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Finding Dory," "Deadpool" and "The Jungle Book" -- all members of the elite group of 39 titles that have opened with more than $100 million domestically. It's also a new opening weekend domestic record for an original animated film, topping the $90.4 million launch of "Inside Out" last summer.
The "Pets" voice cast includes Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan and Albert Brooks. "Despicable Me's" Chris Renaud directs and Yarrow Cheney co-directs from a script by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch.
"Pets" is the biggest opening of the year for Universal, which has struggled to replicate last year's record-annihilating results. The studio has fielded some duds, such as "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" and "The Huntsman: Winter's War," failing to find a substitute for 2015 juggernauts like "Jurassic World" and "Furious 7."
It's also another success for Illumination, which opened "Minions" a year ago with $115 million on its way to a $336 million domestic total and $1.16 billion worldwide. Comcast, Universal's parent company, is betting heavily in the animation space. It has a deal in place to buy DreamWorks Animation for $4.1 billion, with the hopes of challenging Disney's dominance of the family film genre. Meledandri's role is unclear -- Universal backs Illumination -- but Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, has said he hopes that he will be the studio's equivalent of John Lasseter, the creative guru at Pixar.
In fourth place, Warner Bros.' "The Legend of Tarzan" picked up $20.6 million, bringing its stateside total to $81.4 million. Universal's "The Purge: Election Year" rounded out the top five, adding $11.7 million to its $58.1 million domestic haul.
Steven Spielberg's "The BFG" now definitively ranks as one of the year's biggest flops. The $140 million children's book adaptation only managed to pick up $7.6 million in its second weekend, bringing its domestic total to a disastrous $38.7 million.
In limited release, Bleecker Street debuted the Viggo Mortensen dramedy "Captain Fantastic" to strong reviews and $98,451 from four theaters. That translates into a $24,613 per-screen average. The film, which screened at Cannes and Sundance, will expand next weekend to 11 new markets, including San Francisco, Boston and Seattle.
After struggling at the beginning of summer, as sequels such as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" failed to gain much traction, ticket sales are on the upswing. Receipts this weekend are up roughly 2% over last year when "Minions" debuted. The hope is that upcoming releases such as "Jason Bourne," "Star Trek Beyond" and "Suicide Squad" can continue to forward momentum.
"There's a lot of breadth in the marketplace," said Aronson. "I think summer is shaping up to finish strongly with some of the tentpoles left to come."