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Hollywood Hopes the July 4th Weekend Can Save the Summer Box Office

Hollywood blockbusters have had a hit-or-miss summer at the box office, so far. But Independence Day weekend is expected to bring some welcome (and familiar) box office relief from an animated franchise featuring little yellow creatures.

This weekend, Comcast's Universal Pictures is releasing Despicable Me 3, the latest installment in the kid-friendly franchise that stars the voice talents of Steve Carell and South Park co-creator Trey Parker (not to mention dozens of the popular Minions characters). Hollywood forecasters are predicting a big debut for the animated movie, which is opening in a record 4,529 theaters in what is the widest-ever domestic theatrical release. Despicable Me 3 is projected to pull in anywhere from $85 million to $100 million over the three-day holiday weekend.

(By comparison, Despicable Me 2 made $83.5 million during its own 4th of July opening weekend in 2013 on its way to a $970 million global haul, while franchise spin-off Minions made roughly $1.2 billion globally after a $115 million opening weekend just two summers ago.)

That kind of box-office haul would be a welcome sight for the U.S. film industry, which has seen several franchise films flop already this summer. Last week's fifth installment of Paramount's Transformers franchise was the latest tentpole film to disappoint, though several other studios have also turned out box office duds, including sequels like Fox's Alien: Covenant and Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, as well as Universal's first attempt at building a monster movie universe with The Mummy.

While some sequels have performed well, such as Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the summer's biggest success story thus far has been Warner Bros.'s Wonder Woman—which brought something new to theaters as a rare female-led (and directed) superhero movie on its way to grossing more than $660 million worldwide since its release at the beginning of June.

Despite Wonder Woman's heroic turn in theaters, the 2017 summer box office is still tracking behind the industry's domestic box office gross for last summer, while the full year-to-date grosses are also down slightly compared to last year.

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Traditionally, Fourth of July weekend is Hollywood's time for blockbuster movies to shine, with major new releases pulling in throngs of moviegoers to bolster the overall summer box office. However, the holiday's results have been uneven in recent years, with 2014 and 2015 providing two of the lowest-grossing Independence Day weekend's at the box office in a decade. (It's worth noting that some people blamed those year's disappointing receipts on the fact that July 4 fell on a Friday and Saturday in 2014 and 2015, respectively, which may have meant that more people stayed home to celebrated the holiday on those typically popular movie days. But TIME pointed out that Hollywood overcame similar calendar issues in previous years.)

Meanwhile, last summer's July 4th weekend rode the success of Disney/Pixar's Finding Dory to rebound with a $231 million total domestic gross for the three-day holiday that was more than 70% higher than each of the previous two summers. Even with last year's overall July 4th box office bump, though, the holiday weekend still failed to register among the five highest-grossing weekends of 2016, and it wasn't even the top-grossing weekend of the summer, according to Box Office Mojo.

Fortunately for Hollywood and Universal, the Despicable Me franchise has had previous success on the July 4th weekend (in 2013), which could bode well for this weekend's results. But for moviegoers who want to avoid another PG-rated, franchise film, there are also two other new releases this weekend that feature original stories aimed directly at adults. Warner Bros. has The House, the R-rated gambling comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, while Sony is offering Baby Driver, a car-chase thriller driven by its infectious soundtrack. The latter movie, which is a critical darling boasting a 97% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, is already performing relatively well in theaters after an early release on Wednesday.

While Despicable Me 3's family appeal and franchise power should easily win the weekend in theaters, movies like Baby Driver and The House could also provide some balance to the box office (and an antidote to the industry's "sequel fatigue") to help Hollywood avoid an overall Fourth of July flop.

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