EXCLUSIVE: Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri will today unveil the world premiere of Minions: The Rise of Gru at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. The latest chapter in the $3.7B+ Despicable Me franchise (the biggest-ever animated series globally) was originally scheduled for release in late June of 2020 before Covid forced a delay.
During his first trip to Europe since the beginning of the pandemic, Meledandri spoke with Deadline about the “determination that both Illumination and Universal had to hold this movie until audiences were back going to the cinema” and extolled the “pure joy” of the film which is his studio’s “most dynamic action movie” ever.
The animation guru, who believes “in the enduring power of the cinema,” further discussed ongoing change in the industry, saying, “Ultimately we can’t use old paradigms to judge future forms of the business.”
The Rise of Gru begins roll out later this month and hits North America on July 1. Here’s our chat with Meledandri.
DEADLINE: Since the release of Minions: The Rise of Gru was delayed by Covid, what are you excited about in terms of getting it out there now?
CHRIS MELEDANDRI: I’d start with the determination that both Illumination and Universal had to hold this movie until audiences were back going to the cinema, which was a pretty bold move given the distribution strategy that we saw many of the other films and other studios take in the face of an impaired or closed cinema business. So, we’ve really been looking forward to this moment and waiting very, very patiently.
There is a joyous quality to this film, and perhaps more than anything else, this film is made with the idea of lifting the spirits of people who see the movie. It’s a pure joy, so we’ve ended up being released at a moment in time where that’s more important than it’s ever been in recent history. I think that it’s really about the fun to be had by coming to see the film — lots of discovery, but also lots of nostalgia for a set of characters that people forged a relationship with almost 14 years ago.
DEADLINE: Apart from taking the franchise back to an origins story, what did you do differently on this film?
MELEDANDRI: The film is probably the most dynamic action movie that we’ve made to date at Illumination. On one hand, it has all of the great subversive comedy, but we take the adventure to this new level of action which is quite dynamic and exciting.
It takes place a few years before we met the Minions in the first Despicable Me and explores how they forged a relationship with Gru. In the movie, Gru is 12-years-old so we have Steve Carell voicing the 12-year-old version of Gru. We also introduce brand new villains: one named Bell Bottom who is very much of that 1970s era who is voiced by the incomparable Taraji P Henson. She leads the Vicious Six, a band of villains voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Lucy Lawless and Danny Trejo. Inside the movie is an homage to Bruce Lee movies; and we’re very much steeped in the period in which the film takes place.
DEADLINE: Is there a plan mapped out for how you continue with the franchise?
MELEDANDRI: We tend to sit around together as a group and talk about aspects of the world of Despicable Me and Minions and the characters and situations that each of us individually would love to explore further. Then the story that we choose beings to take on a life of its own. So, while directionally we have lots of places that we have discussed going, we don’t exactly have a map that is going to take us there. We react more to the enthusiasm when we sit down and start talking about what story we want to tell rather than be more prescriptive about it.
DEADLINE: Do you ever sit back and reflect at the success of having taken a chance on these little guys and just how much the films have resonated?
MELEDANDRI: Yes, especially when you’re traveling or have friends who are traveling and they send you something with a Minion on it — frequently made locally — and you realize how far these characters have traveled. That’s really astonishing, it’s also really astonishing to look online and see all the user-generated creative expression that’s based on these characters from tattoos to nail polish decorations to baking, all created by individuals.
When you sit and you talk with our team Pierre Coffin, Eric Guillon and Chris Renaud — who are in each way the parents of the Minions — you realize that there is a spirit that comes from this unbelievably talented team of artists that we have at Illumination in Paris and the Minions are an embodiment of that spirit. So, they cease to be a mystery in terms of how did this happen when you really connect with this collective creative body that has an unbelievable imagination.
For me it was easy, when Pierre and Chris and Eric first showed me the very, very rudimentary designs for the characters, I just liked them. I didn’t know why, but I just liked them. Then when I showed them to other people within the company, I saw the exact same response, and that’s really our process of determining what it is that we take a risk with or back.
Fortunately for me, this team has over the last 14 years continued to create characters and personalities that charm me and have gone on to charm many other people as well.
DEADLINE: You are a global thinker who understands the importance of international. We’ve previously talked about the fact that you have a lot of different nationalities collaborating in the world of Illumination. What is your take on reaching the international marketplace?
MELEDANDRI: I believe that the international community has been incredibly important for us in just creative expression, and we all saw during the last few years how many television programs from different parts of the world engaged with American audiences more so than ever before. We continue to look outside the U.S., as well as inside, but outside specifically for partners to collaborate with for new ideas, new filmmakers.
We’ve really pushed to bring different influences together, or are always striving to make our creative teams ultimately reflect the world of our audience. While the majority of our team clearly in Paris is French, and is an extraordinary group of French artists, we’re layering a lot of Americans and other nationalities as well.
We have also produced a short film over the last two years with a director who works for us named Momo Wang, who’s from China, and we animated it in China. We’re continually looking for new opportunities; it’s exciting when you can discover a new filmmaker, a new way of telling stories — and it’s going to continue to be an important part of Illumination’s future.
DEADLINE: You are also collaborating with Nintendo…
MELEDANDRI: Our relationship right now with Nintendo comes from many years of really exploring different types of partnerships in Japan and the partnership that I have producing side-by-side with the legendary Miyamoto-san (Shigeru Miyamoto) on the Super Mario Brothers movie is one of the really primary focusses of Illumination. It’s this incredible coming together of our senior team on the movie and Miyamoto-san’s senior team at Nintendo — and is, I believe, unprecedented in terms of its closeness.
DEADLINE: At CinemaCon last August, you gave a rousing speech. I know you believe in theatrical. Where do you think we are now and what’s your outlook?
MELEDANDRI: I believe in the enduring power of the cinema today. I believed in it a year ago. I’m going to still believe in it a year from now. However, we are in the midst of the change right now and it’s next to impossible to tell where we’re going to be specifically in the next few years.
I think what we’ve been witnessing is a tremendous amount of experimentation. Different studios have been experimenting in different ways — trying to mitigate against Covid, trying to find a path that keeps pace with the changing nature of audiences’ desire for control over aspects of their media, finding what the new business models are.
So, we’re in the midst of it and I think we’re going to be in the middle of it for the foreseeable future. I am optimistic that it will settle, but I don’t think looking in the rear-view mirror is going to be the place to discover what it will look like in the future.
It’s going to be different, but the proclamations about the death of the cinema I think have proven to be false projections. We’re seeing evidence of that in the last year with certain titles way over performing, but ultimately we’re going to have to settle into a place where filmmakers need to develop or refine a new set of metrics for what they view as being successful. It can’t simply be the past sort of paradigm of box office because people are going to see our films and are already seeing our films in many different ways and at many different points along the lifecycle of the distribution path. Ultimately we can’t use old paradigms to judge future forms of the business.
I say that because we all have become accustomed to thinking about movies through the lens of what was the opening weekend and how much do they make and judging ourselves based on those metrics as well as critical response and audience response. But the business part of that piece is changing now and we just have to wait to get to that place where it settles down and we have a better idea of what this next phase will look like.
DEADLINE: It does feel like it’s an ever-evolving situation…
MELEDANDRI: I certainly do not think we’re going to see periods of stability like we have in the past in almost every area of our lives simply because of how fast technology is changing and constantly forcing an evolution in so many aspects of our life. But I don’t think we’re going to see the degree of experimentation that has been going on over the last two years as everyone is trying to figure out how to navigate the pandemic as well as head towards the future.
DEADLINE: You’ve had a long history with Annecy, having previously launched films there. What is the importance of the festival for you?
MELEDANDRI: Annecy is the epicenter for the celebration of animation for the world, and so we’ve been here many times… When you’re at Annecy, you see people from all over the world who are either in the business of animation or simply share a love of animation.
There’s nothing more thrilling than screening your movie for the first time in front of an audience at Annecy. It can be a tough audience because of how steeped they are in the art form, but it’s an audience that’s also ready to celebrate animated films in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.