Box office preview: Minions will attract millions to 'Despicable Me 2' on July 4th weekend

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Image Credit: Illumination Entertainment

Thanks to Man of Steel, Fast & Furious 6, Monsters University, and the surprising success of Now You See Me, the box office climbed to record levels in June, earning $1.25 billion — a 19 percent increase over June 2012. This week, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger, which both begin showing tonight to take advantage of the July 4th holiday weekend, will try to keep the box office firing on all cylinders. The former is poised to dominate the field, but the latter seems unlikely to lasso a big enough audience to justify its gargantuan budget. Here’s how I think the box office might shake out over the Wednesday-to-Sunday period:

1. Despicable Me 2 – $130 million
The original Despicable Me was a surprise success in 2010, opening with $56 million en route to a $251 million finish. Adults enjoyed the sly edge of the animated feature, and their kids fell in love with the yellow “minions,” which became breakout characters in the same vein as Madagascar‘s penguins or Ice Age‘s acorn-chasing squirrel, Scrat. For Despicable Me 2, Universal is plastering the minions on any free ad space they can. The studio has inked licensing deals with Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, Progressive, Chiquita, Cheetos, McDonalds, and other national brands. Plus, they’ve got a “Despicablimp” flying around the country.

But those promotional efforts wouldn’t matter all that much if audiences didn’t genuinely love the original — and boy did they. In fact, Universal could have a Shrek 2 situation on their hands here — while the original movie became a word-of-mouth smash (Shrek earned $267 million), the sequel could be a slam dunk right out of the gate (Shrek 2 wound up earning $441.3 million.). Despicable Me 2 does face animated competition from Monsters University, which has topped the chart for two weekends, but Despicable Me 2 is fresher in kids’ minds, since its predecessor came out just three (not 12) years ago, and it’s safe to say there’s more built-in excitement for the young franchise. Opening in over 3,900 theaters, Despicable Me 2, which cost Universal and Illumination Entertainment only $76 million to produce, may earn about $130 million over the five-day period.

2. The Lone Ranger – $58 million
Disney spent at least $225 million on this Gore Verbinski-directed western, which stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer (though many commercials seem to ignore Hammer’s presence altogether), but with terrible reviews and a major lack of social media activity, The Lone Ranger looks likely to become an expensive misfire for the studio. Just to earn back its budget domestically, The Lone Ranger will have to earn $40 million more than the highest-grossing western of all time, Dances with Wolves, which took in $184 million in 1990. That seems very, very unlikely.

Audiences have just never flocked to desert-set movies the way they have superhero flicks or lush adventures like Depp and Verbinski’s Pirates franchise. Recently, western blockbuster Cowboys and Aliens underperformed with a $36.5 million opening and a $100.2 million total against a $163 million budget. That seems like a fair comparison for The Lone Ranger — though Depp’s appeal does boost prospects considerably (especially on the international front, where westerns often toil). Tracking suggests that The Lone Ranger could gallop away with about $70 million over five days, but in a marketplace stuffed with well-liked releases, that sounds quite high. Debuting in about 3,700 theaters, The Lone Ranger could wrangle about $58 million in its first five days. For a standard Hollywood release, that result would be just fine. For a $225 million tentpole with bad reviews and limited international appeal — that could spell trouble.

3. Monsters University – $34 million
The film may fall by about 50 percent due to direct competition from Despicable Me 2, but that still puts it on track for a $23 million three-day weekend — and about $34 million adding in Wednesday and Thursday grosses as well. All told, Monsters University should have nearly $220 million domestically by the time Sunday night rolls around.

4. The Heat – $32 million
Without any new comedies arriving on the scene, The Heat should continue to play well with adult women in its sophomore frame. The R-rated laugher scored $39.1 million in its debut frame, and it could take in another $32 million over the Wednesday-to-Sunday period, which would give the $43 million Fox film about $82 million after two weekends on the chart.

5. World War Z – $24 million
Brad Pitt’s zombie thriller has been holding up very well on weekdays, but the simple fact that the box office is about to get even more crowded may keep it from notching an exemplary hold. Still, it could score another $24 million in five days, yielding a $156 million gross.

Also keep an eye on Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, which is opening in about 800 theaters on Wednesday. The comedy film, shot during one of Hart’s stand-up shows at Madison Square Garden, follows in the footsteps of comedy film Kevin Hart: Laugh At My Pain, which broke out with a $7.7 million total in 2011. Since then, Hart has hosted the MTV Movie Awards, starred in BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood, helped lead Think Like A Man to a $90 million finish, and grown his fanbase substantially. Thus, over the five-day frame, Let Me Explain may take in a very impressive $11 million — not bad considering the film cost only $2.5 million to produce.

Check back to EW on Thursday and Saturday for holiday weekend box office updates, and then again on Sunday for the regular box office report.

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