EXCLUSIVE: Three years ago, Universal Pictures brass wooed Chris Meledandri away from his president post at Fox Animation to start its first family film unit. Over the weekend, Illumination’s first effort, Despicable Me, nearly doubled Universal’s gross predictions for a $56.4 million opening. Suddenly, the Meledandri decision looks like one of the better ones made by NBC Universal in a good long time. The studio has reinforced that by making a full commitment to the venture. Illumination’s original co-financing game plan made by former chairmen David Linde and Marc Shmuger called for Universal to fund only half the operation and film budgets, and Illumination’s founder and CEO Meledandri raising the rest. But that plan was delayed by the credit crunch. Then Universal chiefs Ron Meyer, Rick Finkelstein and Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley told Meledandri, in a decision that went all the way up to NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker, that they didn’t want to share and would fully fund him. Meledandri, who has autonomy but won’t make pictures that don’t excite the studio’s toppers, sparked to Uni’s financing plan because it incentivizes hustle to release and market the films. Despicable Me, for instance, was heavily cross-promoted in NBC-Universal platforms that included network, cable and theme parks.
The result is now a momentum changer for Universal on several fronts. Despicable Me ended a prolonged hit pic slump. It plugged the studio into a hot family film marketplace after a series of adult dramas failed to earn back their oversized budgets. Most importantly, Despicable Me is the first Universal film in a while where the studio doesn’t have to defend the costs and first dollar gross outlays. The film was made for $69 million with little or no gross out the door. It is a fresh IP with a sequel already in the works: Despicable Me 2 talks are already underway among the studio, Meledandri, and writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.
Illumination is also making two short films featuring The Minions, the adorable yellow thumb-shaped henchmen of larcenous Gru (Steve Carell). Whether the shorts precede the next Illumination film — which would be very Pixar-ish — or find some other way to reach the audience, Universal and Illumination have begun brand building in a remarkably short time.
“What’s particularly nice is that the making of Despicable Me was probably more fluid than any film I’ve ever worked on,” Meledandri told me. “There was a clarity and a unified vision behind this film. I started the company three years ago this spring, and I am confident that this was the fastest transition of any major studio CG movie from idea to release that has ever been done.”
Right behind Despicable Me is Hop–a live-action CG film with Russell Brand voicing the Easter Bunny—which Universal releases April 1, 2011. After that is Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, most likely followed by the Ricky Gervais-created Flanimals. There is a Where’s Waldo film and Tim Burton is involved in a new version of The Addams Family, based on Charles Addams’ original drawings from The New Yorker. A bunch of original ideas are on the drawing board as well. Illumination will grow from one picture per year to two or three within the next several years.
How was Meledandri — a soft-spoken guy who can’t draw a lick but knows a good drawing when he sees one — able to mobilize so quickly? In a move Gru might admire, Meledandri appropriated the available top talent he worked with during his eight years at Fox Animation (a division involved in generating hits like Ice Age, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Simpsons Movie, Robots and Horton Hears A Who!), put them under exclusive contract and turned them into a repertory company of artists, writers and directors who move from one family-friendly project to the next. The work is done in Illumination’s Santa Monica headquarters and a 35,000 square foot animation facility in Paris that is steps away from the Eiffel Tower, housed above an Aston Martin dealership.
Paul and Daurio, who wrote the Fox Animation hit Horton Hears A Who! before they scripted Despicable Me, wrote the script for The Lorax and will make their debuts as co-directors; Despicable Me co-director Chris Renaud, who began working with Meledandri as a storyboard artist at Ice Age producer Blue Sky, is directing The Lorax (animated films have multiple directors) and has committed to another Illumination film after that; Pierre Coffin, another Despicable Me director, is working on two Illumination projects, one of which will be Illumination’s next release after The Lorax. That’ll either be Flanimals (scripted by Matt Selman, with whom Meledandri worked on The Simpsons Movie) or an original idea by Coffin; Hop writer Brian Lynch is under an exclusive writing deal; Hop director Tim Hill came from Alvin and the Chipmunks, as did that film’s exec producer Missy Imperato; Janet Healy, who produced Despicable Me with Meledandri, is producing The Lorax and another Despicable Me producer, John Cohen, is a producer on Hop; John Powell, who composed the scores for Meledandri on Robots and Ice Age 2, is composing the score for The Lorax. As for voice talent, Carell came from Horton Hears A Who!, and Brand took on Hop after providing a Despicable Me voice.
Meledandri found his way into family film by accident while a creative exec at Fox, where he spent 13 years. Working with Dawn Steel as exec producer of Cool Runnings made Meledandri the de facto family guy in the eyes of ex-Fox chief Bill Mechanic. He assigned Meledandri to spearhead the studio’s Phoenix-based animation studio venture with Don Bluth, which led to the films Anastasia and Titan A.E. Meledandri had begun developing the Ice Age script by then, and when he met Chris Wedge and his team while they were generating animation for commercials, he married them to the project. Even as Titan A.E. bombed and the Bluth venture cratered, incoming studio chiefs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos told Meledandri to keep going. They acquired Blue Sky Studios and Meledandri oversaw its transition from a visual effects to a CG animation studio that continues to be a catalyst for Fox’s animation success and underscores the importance of a family film unit to a major studio. The last film, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, grossed a staggering $886 million.