How an Original Movie Finally Had a $100m Opening

By  · Published on July 11th, 2016

The secret to the success of The Secret Life of Pets.

While overall this summer’s box office seems pretty dismal, over the weekend we saw an historical achievement by one of the season’s unexpected blockbusters. The Secret Life of Pets became the first original movie ever to gross more than $100m in its opening weekend. How on earth did it do so well? How did it debut bigger than previous original movie record holders Inside Out and Avatar, each of which at least had a built-in audience for their brand-name studio or filmmaker? Let’s explore.

Moviegoers Want Originality

At a time when sequels are mostly doing poorly, audiences further made their case to Hollywood that they want something new, something they’ve never seen before. The Secret Life of Pets isn’t a sequel, a prequel, a spinoff, or a reboot. It’s not even based on a book or comic or TV series, or anything else that would constitute adaptation. We’ve technically never met these particular dogs and cats and villainous rabbit. The animated feature is fresh from the minds of screenwriters Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch.

But Nothing Too Deep

What does The Secret Life of Pets have that Disney’s new original animated feature Zootopia doesn’t? A lack of depth, and that’s a good thing for a lot of people. Sure, a lot of us appreciate the racism subtext of Zootopia, which did open relatively well and is still the second-highest-grossing movie of the year worldwide. But maybe more moviegoers want something totally mindless, and that’s the case with Pets. It’s enjoyable, but it’s also forgettable. There are no serious themes or overly clever ideas a la Inside Out.

And Still Kind of Familiar

Original works tend to do better if they have some familiar elements. They can just be relatable characters, and The Secret Life of Pets easily appeals to millions of pet owners. The movie also has been criticized for being a ripoff of Toy Story, though that movie was a ripoff of The Christmas Toy – which spun off a TV series coincidentally(?) titled The Secret Life of Toys. It also has similarities with other recent animated films, including Shaun the Sheep Movie, Finding Dory, and Minions. It’s original as original gets these days.

Minions Did Their Dirty Work

Speaking of Minions, it is possible the popularity of that movie, a spinoff/prequel of the Despicable Me franchise, had something to do with the success of The Secret Life of Pets. Or its characters did. They have a new short, Mower Minions, and it wouldn’t be too weird for kids in America to be so addicted to the little yellow buffoons that they mainly went to the movies to see that brief cartoon and then stay for the feature as a bonus. And as an extra bonus, the kids got to see a pug in a Minions costume in that feature.

Animated Movies Rule

The most logical reason for the success of The Secret Life of Pets is animation is ruling cinemas this year. Actually, it’s not just that this year is that special, even though Zootopia and Finding Dory have been breaking their own records through the first half of 2016. Animation rules period, now. Kids dominate moviegoing interests these days, because they’re impatient and not yet annoyed by all the negatives of the theatrical experience. It was also a hot weekend, and families went to Pets together, and many saw it in 3D.

The Secret Life of Pets Does Toy Story All Wrong

Everything above combined adds up to a notable but not noteworthy hit for Universal and the animation studio Illumination Entertainment. Really it’s not that remarkable an achievement, even if it is one for the history books, at least temporarily and fleetingly. Ticket and surcharge prices keep increasing, so it was only a matter of time before one of these original animated features hit the $100m mark. The next original animated family feature, Storks, could break that number when it opens in September, too.

When a purely imaginative movie like Swiss Army Man opens that high, then we’ll have reason to be excited about the success of original movies again.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.