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What that 'GentleMinions' TikTok trend could say about animation's future

The minions might not only be adorable, annoying yellow creatures but alss indicators of how animated movies market themselves. – Photo by Minions / Twitter

The summer 2022 movie experience was a bit underwhelming, to say the least, for both moviegoers and production companies alike.

Marvel’s seasonal blockbuster “Thor: Love and Thunder” closed its run having grossed $760.7 million, a hearty return in its own right (especially when compared to the $379.8 million brought in by the studio’s last summer offering “Black Widow”), but still well below the box office totals of previous hits released around the same time of year such as 2019’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and even the film’s predecessor, “Thor: Ragnarok.”

This could be due to any number of factors, but the excuse most often given when any company’s underperformed in the past two years has been the impact of the pandemic. Although this reason makes sense on its face (especially in the context of film studios, given the still uncertain nature of movie theaters’ operational status), it doesn’t really hold up in this context given the success rival studios were able to attain this summer.

Most notably, Paramount Pictures’ “Top Gun: Maverick” has made $1.48 billion dollars at the box office so far and has become the 11th highest-grossing film of all time, despite still showing in cinemas today.

But one film which was almost guaranteed to achieve juggernaut status was Illumination’s “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” The 2015 entry in the “Minions” franchise grossed a total of $1.16 billion dollars and was the studio’s first film to surpass a billion dollars in ticket sales revenue.

Although “Rise of Gru” has only grossed approximately $931 million at the time of writing, its theatrical run is still technically ongoing, so it has the potential to overtake the original’s box office total, as unlikely it may be, given October will be the film’s fourth month in theaters.

One hallmark of Illumination’s films is their comparatively low budgets. The original “Minions,” for example, was made for only 74 million dollars, less than half the total cost of Disney’s “Inside Out,” which released the same year.

Although Illumination spends less on movie production than its competitors, the studio more than makes up for its frugality when it comes to advertising. Going back to the original “Minions,” although the movie itself was made for only 74 million, its marketing budget came in just shy of $600 million.

For its most recent "Minions" movie, Illumination is reported to have spent upward of $285 million on promoting the film, but arguably its most infamous marketing campaign seemingly came free of charge courtesy of teens on social media. 

Around the film’s time of release, theaters worldwide reported an influx of well-dressed patrons attending screenings for “Rise of Gru.” This was the result of a TikTok trend dubbed #GentleMinions, which involved people (typically high school or college-aged) suiting up with their friends in their finest attire for a trip to the local multiplex to see Illumination’s newest film.

The movement garnered millions of views on TikTok alone and featured some stand-out variations on the formula, such as one video where two people dressed as maintenance staff in order to smuggle a garbage can full of bananas into a theater.

Although the fad may seem like harmless fun, it wasn’t without its victims. Theater managers had to begin banning people in suits from entering their establishments as a result of previous groups’ rambunctiousness disrupting other guests’ experiences.

U.K. theater manager Daniel Phillips-Smith said in an interview with the BBC, “It’s been absolutely heartbreaking. We’ve had families who won’t even go back into the screen when we’ve tried to sort it out, families leaving before the film has even started and, of course, the children have been in tears.”

Illumination’s response to the trend? A glowing endorsement. On July 1, Illumination’s co-owner Universal Studios tweeted, “to everyone showing up to @Minions in suits: we see you and we love you.”

With this move, the studio has been able to not only appear supportive of its fans but also harness the sense of ironic excitement brought about through its infamy and utilize it as an additional means of marketing.

And “ironic” truly is the best word to describe the buzz surrounding this movie in the context of the trend. Speaking as someone squarely in the age demographic to have been participating in the #GentleMinions movement, the appeal of not only attending a screening for a film of which I am much older than the target audience but also doing so in the most ridiculous way possible is very much apparent.

This, though, points to a troubling trend in Hollywood. Although one could make the argument that the majority of big-budget films have long since become little more than a means to an end in terms of existing solely as a base off which to create and market merchandise, Illumination’s pattern of creating pandering, vapid children’s movies for cheap while investing well in excess of the film’s budget for marketing is this idea at its most blatant.

Cynicism aside, this methodology has proven to be incredibly successful for Illumination. Despite their consistently lukewarm critical reception, its films have all found incredible success financially, making the studio hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of its marketing-first style of moviemaking.

Illumination recently released the debut trailer for its hotly anticipated “The Super Mario Bros. Movie." The studio seems keen to continue the money-first approach with the movie, after online retailer Amazon accidentally listed figures for Mario, Luigi and Bowser from prolific toy manufacturer Jakks Pacific days before the trailer was released.

With all of this having been said, do be sure to stay on the lookout for my thoughts on the movie when it releases in theaters April 7, 2023. 

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