Illumination Entertainment founder and CEO Chris Meledandri stopped by the Venice Film Festival this week for a special tribute and to collect an award in recognition of his contribution to the development of the animated film business. He also brought along Illumination/Universal summer smash The Secret Life Of Pets for a Lido screening ahead of its October 6 release in Italy. That will be the final market on the tale of what our animals get up to when we’re not at home. By that time, the Chris Renaud- and Yarrow Cheney-helmed title will have crossed $800 million at the worldwide box office and potentially be on its way to $500M internationally. Not bad for an original piece of IP.

Will Rogers Pioneer Dinner at CinemaCon, Las Vegas, America - 13 Apr 2016
REX?Shutterstock

As a dog and cat owner, I’ve watched the grosses on Pets throughout the summer with a particular fascination, intrigued by the universality of the story that tapped into a growing demographic and has clearly been a hit with global audiences. I spoke with Meledandri about the film’s inspiration and success as well as his views on the importance of an international perspective. We also chatted about his role at DreamWorks Animation, which Comcast recently acquired for $3.8B.

Illumination launches its “let’s put on a show” show movie Sing at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday. Footage from the movie has already played very strongly at industry gatherings, including here in Venice. Coming up on deck are Despicable Me 3 and Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The studio is currently “deep into the storytelling on Pets 2,” and while Meledandri won’t divulge hints, he says, “There are a lot of places for us to go.”

Animals have been around in animation since the medium began, but there are sometimes cycles. Last year’s toons were more focused on people, be they young girls, the personification of emotions, or Illumination’s own little yellow henchmen. This year has seen a lot more four-footed creatures, even if some of them have walked upright. So, how hard is it to keep finding new ground there?

“I don’t think animals per se will ever get old,” Meledandri says. “To me it’s like saying people are tired of sequels. I don’t believe that and I’m a big proponent of original storytelling; witness two original movies this year. I think it’s painfully simple people like good movies and they don’t like bad movies. I think the fatigue is not sequel fatigue, it’s bad movie fatigue. People will get tired of movies about animals when they see bad movies about animals and then they’ll be excited again when something good comes along.”

SING
Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures

Worldwide audiences have clearly tapped into Pets as a good thing. Here are some records set: Pets had the biggest opening for an original animated film in 17 territories including Russia, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It held several weeks at No. 1 in such places as Russia, Germany, Spain, the UK, Venezuela and Israel (where in Tel Aviv locals brought their dogs to see the film at rooftop screenings). It is the No. 1 animated film of 2016 to date in 17 territories including Israel, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and the UK and is the third-highest-grossing Illumination film at the international box office behind Minions and DM2. In Spain, it is the highest-grossing film of 2016 so far. In Russia it is the third-highest-grossing film of all-time (behind Avatar and Furious 7).

The top three markets (outside the U.S. and China) are the UK, ($46.6M), Japan ($36.9M) and Russia ($30.8M), In China, it took $58.3M, which is about $10M less than Illumination’s Minions last year, but Pets also came out during a downward summer spiral at Middle Kingdom turnstiles. Domestically, Pets woofed up $360.3M; international is at $415M bringing the worldwide total to $775.3M.

“Because our audience is a global audience — and I’d say on average we’re making movies that play to both families and non-families — if we are fortunate enough to have an idea at the center of a movie that has tremendous universality, then you almost can’t stop the film when it hits the theaters,” Meledandri says.

He says the idea for Pets was born of “this notion of wondering about what my pet’s life is outside the realm of what I see. What’s my dog doing when we close the door at the beginning of the day?” he says. Meledandri found inspiration from his son’s budgie. “I went through a period where I shaved every morning and he was on my shoulder. The inner life that I projected onto this budgie was amazing and there’s something about the budgie that gives back and delivers on your projection. How it does it I don’t know. But I then realized that everybody else in the family was doing the same thing. So when I started to share this idea, it turned out that it wasn’t the most original idea in the world because everybody I shared it with said, ‘Gosh, I wonder about that too’.”

Taking it a step further, Meledandri contends, “I do think we’re in a period of time culturally where there is just this extraordinary connection that we have to our pets and in many ways they are displacing kids. They’re so much simpler than dealing with a kid because of this unconditional love that does not get complicated by adolescence or any other manipulation. It’s pure and it’s constant and what I realized was that so many other parts of the world are going through the same sort of phenomenon. When you look at pet ownership, which I only looked at after we decided to make it, the numbers are just ridiculous. Owning pets is as close to a universal phenomenon as I think anything.”

That universality helped fuel both international and domestic box office. Pets is currently the No. 3 animated title of the year worldwide and the No. 2 among original IP toons, coming in behind Zootopia.

One of the things Meledandri says he set out to do when he created Illumination 10 years ago was to integrate “an international perspective.” So, he spent the first week of operation in Japan. “Nobody else cared but me. It was just a commitment I made to myself: What am I going to do to realize this aspiration of integrating a more international perspective into what I’m doing?”

But was the desire to come at the business from a more global stance a creative choice, or a financial one? “It fulfilled a number of different things,” Meledandri told me during our talk at the Lido’s Excelsior Hotel. While he was running Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios, Ice Age 2 did roughly the same business domestically as the first installment, “but internationally it exploded,” Meledandri says. “Other companies were studying us and trying to figure out how did that happen. There’s no question that Fox had a very strong international distribution group, but I actually attributed it to something else which is that my director was fluent in English but it wasn’t his first language, Portuguese was.”

That was Carlos Saldanha who, Meledandri says, “understood everything but did not want to stay in the verbal realm… Making a movie in some respects is a long series of solving problems and when we’d be having these discussions, Carlos very quickly went to a visual place. I’ve never had this conversation with him, but my observation with him was that he was more comfortable communicating his ideas visually… The visual language of Ice Age 2 really asserted itself in the process of making the film. So that was one thing that I always held which was: ‘OK, I love to debate things, how can you use the visual language as the default, not words?’”

Having a creative leadership team on a movie “that is made up of a complexion of different nationalities is something that I think is really well suited to an aspiration to make a movie for a diverse audience,” Meledandri explains. “That is a philosophical point of view, but there is also the selfish point of view where I just thought it would be more interesting to expose myself to more cultures and that’s proven to be absolutely true.” Illumination still has “very important relationships in Japan and we’ve managed to find ways to work together even though we have not yet made a movie with a Japanese director.”

minions
Universal

The Illumination brand is also growing around the world. Part of that can be laid at the feet of those ubiquitous Minions – who also helped promote Pets with the Mower Minions short. “When I say growth, we started very small,” Meledandri continues. “I’m not saying that the majority of people in any country recognize it, but as we’re charting it, things are starting to stick.”

Illumination’s Paris base, Illumination MacGuff, has 850 employees and has tapped into a vast talent pool that hails from some of the world’s best animation schools. “I think that the influence of an artistic sensibility that is French happens to fit very nicely with my own sensibility,” Meledandri says. “The personality of the films absolutely has a strong French influence. The other part of it is just the caliber of the people we have. When I started the company, being based in the States was really not an option because as a start-up I was not going to be able to attract 250 world class artists and production personnel and France was a more mature CG market than virtually anywhere else other than the UK. This could not have worked out any better in my mind and everybody who I’ve moved from the States there loves the country and doesn’t want to leave. We have more French people who want to come to LA.”

Something that’s happening in L.A. right now is the integration of DreamWorks Animation, which Comcast agreed to buy for $3.8B in April. NBCUniversal in late August set the executive structure for the company now under its umbrella, but Meledandri’s name was not included in the announcement. Why?

“The studio is being run by Mireille Soria and Bonnie Arnold and they’re reporting into Donna Langley and my work right now is on a much more strategic level,” he says. “The challenge that we face is how do we take these two companies and have the combination be stronger than the individual companies. But everything becomes stronger by virtue of the fact that both are parked underneath the Universal/Comcast banner. So my work with Jeff (Shell) and Donna is really much more on a strategic level than on an operational level.”

Meledandri continued, “I’ve done this twice. I was the founding president of Fox Animation, purchased Blue Sky and built that from 40 people; and Illumination. In both cases, I started with no projects, and first-time directors. Constructing a vision — from product choices to defining an artistic culture became the critical objective.

“DreamWorks is a company that is filled with fantastic artists which is what the core of any animation company is. The company obviously is running and they’re doing really exciting work. But then the real question becomes what is the strategic vision. And there have been a few people who have successfully set those visions, obviously John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, Jeffrey (Katzenberg) at Disney and at DreamWorks. Fortunately for Universal, I did it at Fox and I’ve done it here so I think there’s tremendous opportunity and now it’s really about defining a path forward.”

Illumination Entertainment minions logo
Illumination Entertainment

Of comparisons to Lasseter, Meledandri calls him “singular” and says, “I’m not even thinking about a future operational thing. People often ask me, how have you been able to be consistently successful since 2002? Every film does $100M plus at the domestic box office, and there are a couple of answers. I pick good people, like Janet Healy, and I pick good stories. But the other is that I’m very deliberate. I don’t fly by the seat of my pants. I set strategies and then I pursue those in unrelenting fashion. In this case, the real opportunity here is the artistic talent and the rest is strategic.”

Turning back to the general state of the business, Meledandri says, “I think that the aspiration for excellence is the critical factor — not even achieving it across the board — but to me when you look at cinema today it is a qualitative judgement on each and every film that determines its life. I don’t mean that from a critical standpoint, I mean that from an audience standpoint. I have been very fortunate since Ice Age to make movies that somehow charm audiences. I think that the key to it for me has been coming up with the right ideas, but more importantly choosing the right collaborators and artists to execute those ideas.”