While it's no surprise that "The Secret Life of Pets" debuted at the top of the box office chart this weekend, most pundits predicted it would top out around $72 million.

They were only off by about $31 million.

Sunday estimates placed the cartoon's earnings at $103.2 million, which amounts to a tremendous $23,609 per screen. It set a record for the biggest opening ever for a movie with an original screenplay (beating last year's "Inside Out," which debuted at $90.4 million).

How did "Pets" manage to collar that record and outperform expectations by so much? Here are six ways.

1. Illumination Knows Their Audience
That's the animation studio behind the "Despicable Me"/"Minions" franchise. Not only do they know how to create epic-sized comedies that delight adults and kids alike (and boys and girls alike), but they've also owned this particular weekend in July ever since the release of "Despicable Me" in 2010.

2. Execution
It helps that "Pets" cast comic all-stars that grown-ups like, including Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart, neither of whom has ever done animation before. Not because they were likely to bring their respective adult fanbases to the theater, but because they know funny.

The performers, the script, and the visuals all delivered, at least according to both critics (who rated "Pets" 76 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and ticketbuyers, who graded the film an A- at CinemaScore. That means word-of-mouth after Friday's record-setting opening ($38.3 million, the best first day for a non-sequel animated film) was strong enough to sell the film for the rest of the weekend.

3. Distribution
Playing on 4,370 screens, "Pets" enjoyed the widest release of any animated film in history. Although, at $23,609 per venue, it could have played on 500 fewer screens and still beaten "Inside Out's" record.

4. Competition
The main reason predictions for "Pets" were so cautious is that there's another talking animal cartoon currently in theaters. Maybe you've heard of it; it's called "Finding Dory." In its fourth weekend, the Pixar sequel reeled in an estimated $20.4 million, putting it in a virtual tie for second place with "The Legend of Tarzan" (an estimated $20.6 million). This weekend, "Dory" became the top-grossing movie of 2016, with a total of $422.6 million to date. It's also the top-grossing Pixar movie ever, Disney's highest-grossing animated movie (besting "The Lion King"), and the third-biggest cartoon of all time (and sure to surpass the animation champ, $441.2 million-grossing "Shrek 2," in a few days).

And yet, "Dory" didn't dent "Pets" at all. In fact, this was one of those rare rising-tide-lifts-all-boats weekends at the multiplex. The other new wide release of the weekend, R-rated comedy "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," was expected to open low, at around $12 million, but it came in fourth with an estimated $16.6 million. This even though it was competing for the same viewers as "Central Intelligence," still strong in its fourth weekend with an estimated $8.1 million.

5. Animation
Speaking of talking animal cartoons, audiences can't get enough of them. Before this weekend, four of this year's top-earning movies fit that pattern -- "Dory," "Zootopia," "Kung Fu Panda 3," and "The Angry Birds Movie." And "Pets" has already earned more in three days than "Angry Birds" has earned since it opened in mid-May.

6. Saturation
Of course, it's not as easy to market an original story as it is to sell a movie based on a familiar title. Which is why Universal started early with "Pets." Not only has the studio been putting out ads, teasers, and trailers for a year, but it also made a promotional partner of nearly every pet-related event over the past 12 months, including the Puppy Bowl and the Westminster Dog Show. (Also the Stanley Cup playoffs and NBA playoffs -- insert joke here about the beastly behavior of pro athletes.) And you haven't been able to step into a PetSmart or McDonald's lately without seeing a "Pets" promotion.

Clearly, Universal has been betting on "Pets" to be its next big animation franchise. Before the film even opened, the studio announced it was building a "Pets"-inspired theme park attraction. It ought to be ready for visitors before the inevitable "Pets" sequel comes to theaters.
The Secret Life of Pets
PG2016
Based on 39 critics

A terrier and his canine pal encounter a rebellious bunny and his gang of abandoned pets. Read More

December 6, 2016
5:00pm
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