Hollywood may be having a mixed year at the box office overall, but family films continue to boom.
Universal Pictures this weekend became the latest studio to find success in family animation as its first stab at the genre, "Despicable Me," opened to a sensational $60.1 million, according to studio estimates.
The 3-D film easily beat "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," which collected $33.4 million on its second weekend and is performing almost identically to last year's "Twilight" movie, "New Moon."
"Predators," the weekend's other new nationwide release, sold a solid $25.3-million worth of tickets in the United States and Canada.
Movie attendance is down 2.5% since summer blockbuster season started in May and 1.4% for the year, according to Hollywood.com. Most of the top hits have been PG-rated movies, however, including five of the top seven domestic releases.
Universal has been largely absent from that category, but in 2007 it recruited Fox Animation chief Chris Meledandri to jump-start its efforts through the new Illumination Entertainment label. "Despicable," the first film from Illumination, was the biggest-ever opening for an original animated movie not made by Pixar or DreamWorks Animation.
"Whatever else is going on in the marketplace, it's evident that quality, all-audience films are one of the most powerful opportunities imaginable," said Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson. "I'm ecstatic that on our first swing we performed at the highest of levels."
Like the best performing Pixar and DreamWorks movies, "Despicable Me" drew a broad audience, only 55% of whom were families with children under 12. Strong reviews and positive word-of-mouth helped the film tremendously, as those who saw it opening night gave it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
It's well positioned for a long box office run that could take it to more than $150 million. That would make it the best performing film in at least 15 months for Universal, which has had a weak box-office run since last summer.
Most ads in the movie's successful marketing campaign featured a group of small yellow supporting characters called "minions."
"All of the anecdotal evidence we had showed that people flipped for those characters and we knew we had to put them front and center in our campaign outdoor, in print and online," said Fogelson, who added that conversations about a potential sequel will happen soon.
"Despicable Me" was made by a French animation studio on a contract basis at a total cost of about $70 million, less than half of what Pixar and DreamWorks typically spend. The film should be profitable as a result, especially if it performs well overseas. "Despicable" has yet to open in most foreign markets but had a so-so $3.4-million start in Russia this weekend.
"The Last Airbender" opened to a much stronger $8 million in the country, signaling that director M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon animated series might do its best overseas.
In the U.S. and Canada, "Airbender," Paramount Pictures' only event movie of the summer, fell a sizable 58% on its second weekend to $17.2 million, putting it at a good but not great total of $100.2 million. If it continues falling fast, the movie, which cost $150 million to produce, may not reach that same number at the box office.
"Eclipse" fell a smaller but still significant 49% on its second weekend, as audience interest in the fan-favorite vampire romance series was once again front-loaded. After 12 days, ticket sales revenue for "Eclipse" is a fantastic $237 million. Last November's "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" collected $235 million in the same period of time, indicating that the number of people who want to see a "Twilight" movie hasn't changed in the past eight months.
Overseas, "Eclipse" opened higher this weekend than "New Moon" in Great Britain and South Korea, but lower in France. Its foreign total is $219 million from 63 markets.
The launch of "Predators," which stars Adrien Brody, was good given that the film, produced by Robert Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios, cost 20th Century Fox and Dune Entertainment only about $40 million to make. The reboot of the science-fiction action series about human-hunting aliens drew an overwhelmingly male audience mixed among age groups.
"We got young men and also older ones who remember the  original with Arnold Schwarzenegger," said Fox's senior vice president of distribution, Bert Livingston.
"Predators" had a healthy foreign debut as well, taking in $18 million in 22 markets.