EXCLUSIVE: Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri has hired Ashley Kramer to be EVP of Production and Gail Harrison to oversee Creative Marketing. The move signals expansion plans for the 4-year-old Universal Pictures-based company, whose first release Despicable Me grossed $540 million worldwide. At a time when recent underwhelming results from animation releases like Mars Needs Moms has some second-guessing the animated feature game all the way down to 3D prices, Meledandri is adding executives with the intention of doubling Illumination’s output to two films per year by 2012 or 2013. The company’s next release, the live action/CG mix Hop, will be released by Universal on April 1.
“With Despicable Me behind us, the impending release of Hop, The Lorax in production and a Despicable Me sequel in early stages, it was time to properly scale the company and begin to solidify the team that will lead us as we move forward,” Meledandri told me. “With our output rising from our current schedule of one movie per year, it became imperative that we supplement the staff with additional key executives who can help the company grow. These two new hires are the first of a few key positions we will be filling.”
Meledandri said that Harrison will be helpful in what he sees as a major priority for Illumination: bolstering the efforts of Universal’s marketing team and brand building on each family film release. Part of that is an emphasis on supplying “vast amounts of content generated in the films to exist outside the films themselves.” Meledandri noted that Despicable Me yielded over 15 minutes of extra original content. “Some of it was used for DVD, some for interstitial material that ran on the NBC networks, and some we used in conjunction with our promotional partners,” he said. There will also be a greater emphasis on promotional tie-ins like the one announced this morning by Universal, which tied in Walmart to promote Hop.
As for Kramer’s hire, it signals that Illumination will acquire more projects, but not that many. Meledandri is determined to keep a development ratio of 3.5 projects bought for each one made. “That’s dramatically different from the studio average, and it makes it harder for people submitting projects because we are extremely selective,” Meledandri said. “The good thing is, their chances of a film getting made from something we’re developing is very high.”
Meledandri said when Illumination ups its output, the second film won’t be another 3D CG animated feature. “We can’t make two fully animated films year in and out; we’re not set up to do it and the films are too work-intensive,” he said. “We’ll get to our two pictures per year target from all sources combined. That means one could be stop-motion, a hybrid, or live action that bolsters our steady flow of fully animated films.”
Not having to wait a year between releases will help the pressure that all animated-driven companies face, when the stigma of a flop lingers when there’s no follow-up film right behind it. The DreamWorks Animation stock price fluctuates on the fortunes of each release, and the dismal failure of Disney’s Mars Needs Moms has created questions about everything from the performance-capture animation method to high 3D ticket prices. Meledandri acknowledged the pressurized environment but said it’s a misnomer to question animation’s viability because a few don’t work.
“The marketplace has become increasingly difficult if for no other reason than the softening of DVD sales, so sure it’s tougher,” he said. “The percentage of success in animation compared to other areas of film statistically has been extremely competitive and animation probably has been one of the strongest-performing sectors in the last 10 or 20 years. The mistake is to credit the medium for that success. It is the films made in that medium. I haven’t seen Mars Needs Moms, but to take the performance of that film as an indicator of the entire medium is foolish.”
Meledandri said the ongoing 3D pricing debate also comes down to film companies realizing that audiences have outgrown the novelty factor. “There was an initial burst of excitement that came along with CG, and then films had to earn audience interest,” he said. “We’ve seen the same happen with 3D. It’s a wonderful enhancement for a film that is artfully done by a talented filmmaker. If people began to think it could be a marketing tool or that by translating film into 3D the audience was going to come, then shame on them. This is absolutely a pressurized business to be in, but I’ve been in that one-picture-a-year corridor for about 10 years now. I approach it from the standpoint of trying to structure our films for profitability. If they are more successful than merely returning a healthy profit, fantastic. It’s inevitable they’re not all going to work.”
Kramer had most recently been head of production at Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium and worked on such films as Coraline and Dark Water. She began as a Fox 2000 executive under Laura Ziskin and Elizabeth Gabler. Though Meledandri ran Fox Animation before starting Illumination, he never worked directly with Kramer. He had a closer association with Harrison, who had been a VP of creative at 20th Century Fox, where she oversaw marketing for Blue Sky Studios, which Meledandri supervised for years. Her work included campaigns for Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Rio. She also worked with promotional partner companies like AT&T, Mattel and Proctor & Gamble.