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MEME MACHINES

“Minions 2” broke a box office record with help from nostalgia-driven Gen Z flash mobs

The character Gru with his Minions in Minions 2
Universal Pictures
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  • Adario Strange
By Adario Strange

Media & entertainment reporter based in New York

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Minions: The Rise of Gru (Minions 2), Universal Pictures’ latest entry in the Despicable Me franchise, is the most successful July 4th movie opening ever, after bringing in over $125 million in the US and Canada over the weekend. That beats the previous record held by Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, which collected $115 million during the same holiday-weekend period in 2011.

Releases from the franchise have become reliable multimillion dollar tentpole events, but the the record-breaking Minions 2 has had additional help from a social media movement—called GentleMinions—that is completely unconnected to the Hollywood studio behind the film.

It has put Hollywood on notice that the power of platforms like TikTok and Reddit cannot be ignored when film marketing budgets are being allocated. There’s no guarantee that Hollywood will be able to directly influence or even harness the new power of the meme crowd, but supporting it will likely become a major new lever in the toolbox of most major movie studios.

Social media is helping Hollywood emerge from the pandemic to reclaim the box office

Economists and executives envisioned the return to moviegoing, they probably didn’t anticipate frolicking suit-and-tie-wearing teenagers taking over local theaters. But that’s what has happened in the last few days as ironic memes that percolated on TikTok and other social media platforms for weeks have invaded the real world.

A similar meme cropped up a few years ago during the release of Joker in 2019. At the time, some social media users posted ironic photos of themselves and others (often celebrities or famous characters) seemingly dressed up to attend a showing of the film along with the phrase, “Tickets to Joker, please.” Since then, the construct of “Tickets to [movie name], please,” has become an ongoing ironic joke framing for various film titles.

However, the appearance of teenagers actually wearing suits to showings of Minions 2 in theaters in the US, UK, and elsewhere appears to be a new wrinkle in the meme’s growth. Based on a large number of videos posted on TikTok, the suited teens range from truly devoted fans to casual viewers just using the film as a means to party with a few friends.

Some of those outings have been so disruptive to other theater customers that some movie theaters have banned groups of teens wearing suits to the film in order to avoid everything from food fights, loud cheering during random moments, and even fights in the theaters.

The wide range of behaviors of GentleMinions groups is a typical feature of internet-popularized trends. What starts as an innocuous activity often spirals into disruption and sometimes danger as new groups of people continually trying to outdo prior participants. Consider the man who died while planking, and the couple that started a wildfire with a pyrotechnic gender reveal.

The post-outbreak return to theaters

While there’s no way to delineate how much of the success of Minions 2 is due to the GentleMinions meme. The box office milestone is another signal that pandemic-related concerns about returning to movie theaters may have finally turned a corner. The film’s $93 million haul from the rest of the world is gradually closing in on its US and Canada numbers. That box office earning trajectory matches previous ticket sales in the franchise. International box office—as the non-US non-Canada revenue is known—represented over 70% of the franchise’s take for its last two films: Minions in 2015 and Despicable Me 3 in 2017. The first movie, Despicable Me, earned roughly half of its ticket sales internationally.

Movie studios are being forced to deepen their understanding of internet meme culture

Despite some of the disruptive groups involving suited teens at screenings of the film, Universal Pictures has been publicly supportive of the groups, who have taken to using the GentleMinions hashtag to organize online.

There’s almost certainly a bit of nostalgia involved in the GentleMinions meme. When Despicable Me debuted in 2010, many of the Gen Z teens now coming to Minions 2 screenings were either in preschool or just entering grade school, the demographic the franchise was primarily targeted toward. But by turning the motivation to see the film into an ironic comedy exercise, the GentleMinions meme appears to be an extension of the meme stock experience.

In addition to interest from serious investors, meme stocks—which emerged in 2020 and involved companies such as GameStop and AMC—largely took off after users on Reddit and other social media platforms decided to use the brands as a focus of ironic humor, a show of collective power, and a pushback against the institutional wisdom of Wall Street analysts. The joke-driven virality of the meme stock posts eventually led to some stock holders making and losing large sums of money as a result.

Now, Minions 2 is benefitting from the same kind of uncontrolled marketing. Sony attempted to cash in on a comparable meme (known as It’s Morbin’ Time) by rereleasing Morbius in theaters after a poor first outing, but the movie was still ultimately a flop.

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