'Minions' Rides Into Theaters on $600 Million-Plus Publicity Spree

Partners Alone Have Added $593 Million in Hype

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Universal Pictures is undertaking one of its biggest-ever marketing campaigns to promote "Minions," an animated spinoff film about yellow creatures that's poised to join the $1 billion box-office club.

The studio has decorated theaters with giant Minions, put yellow labels on half a billion Chiquita bananas and joined with more companies than ever, including Amazon.com Inc., General Mills Inc., McDonald's Corp., studio parent Comcast Corp. and Snapchat. Partners alone have delivered $593 million in ads and promotions, Universal said.

Of the partners' $593 million in spending, less than half was for ads such as TV and print, the rest being the estimated value of promotions, for example using Minions on cereal boxes, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not be identified discussing non-public information. Universal isn't disclosing its own additional marketing costs.

Universal itself began promoting "Minions" on TV in December, an early start for a summer release. The spots included a $4.4 million ad during the Super Bowl on Comcast's NBC network, according to researcher iSpot.tv. Total spending on national TV ads for the film amounted to $23.4 million through July 8.

"Dozens of brands worldwide have jumped on the yellow bandwagon," said Jeff Gomez, chief executive officer of Starlight Runner, a film marketing company.

A spinoff from the successful "Despicable Me" series, "Minions" may hand Universal the box-office lead for the full year, its first win since at least 1998. Only two animated films -- "Frozen" and "Toy Story 3" -- have ever topped $1 billion in global sales, and both are from Walt Disney Co., the main rival for this year's bragging rights. Disney has new Marvel and "Star Wars" films on tap this year.

"Universal is a lock to win the year," said Barton Crockett, analyst at FBR & Co.

While Comcast bought Universal for its larger TV operations, the film studio and theme parks (where Minions are also stars) have become surprise successes, Mr. Crockett said.

"They end up right now being the best parts of the whole acquisition," he said.

U.S. theaters
Universal leads the domestic box office this year by a wide margin, with $1.53 billion in sales as of July 5, compared with $1.15 billion for No. 2 Disney, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. Universal has been bolstered by "Jurassic World," the top domestic film of the year, along with "Furious 7," the No. 1 film worldwide, and "Fifty Shades of Grey."

The toylike Minions are a perfect tie-in for marketers, which carried a lot of the advertising burden for Universal in exchange for rights to use the characters to promote their own products.

"We're getting everything from yellow Minions Tic Tacs, Twinkies, iPhone cases, and over 500 million Minion-stickered Chiquita bananas," Mr. Gomez said.

The film is a prequel, starting with the development of the Minions from one-celled yellow organisms. The creatures, who have their own language, fall into the service of the evil Scarlet Overkill and have to save all of Minionkind.

BoxOffice.com forecasts opening weekend sales of $114 million in North America for "Minions" and $345 million for the film's full run in domestic theaters. The picture could also yield $700 million internationally. Advance sales so far are outpacing Disney's Pixar feature "Inside Out," according to online seller Fandango.

That should make the film profitable, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Animated movies have produced the highest net profits of major releases from 2005 to 2014, according to Bloomberg Intelligence and SNL Kagan.

Modest budget
Universal's Illumination Entertainment made "Minions" for a modest $74 million, according to the studio, in line with past films in the series. By comparison, "Frozen" had a budget of $150 million and "Toy Story 3"cost $200 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

Executives from Universal Pictures declined to comment.

Universal struck gold with the first "Despicable Me" in 2010. The $69 million film generated $543 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. The 2013 sequel "Despicable Me 2," made for $76 million, brought in $971 million.

The movie does face obstacles. Past films in the series rated better with critics. And in "Minions," the non-English-speaking creatures move from a supporting role to center stage, according to Robert Marich, author of "Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics." They're backed up with a voice cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm and Michael Keaton.

Gretchen McCourt, executive vice president of Pacific Theatres' Arclight Cinemas, is confident the chain has a hit.

"The characters have become personalities unto themselves after the 'Despicable Me' films and the campaign has just been adorable" McCourt said in an interview.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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