Family films for Universal

Meledandri animates new unit

Chris Meledandri is ankling as head of 20th Century Fox Animation to set up a family entertainment banner at Universal Pictures.

New unit, which has not been named but launches this spring, will produce both animated and live-action pics that U will distribute worldwide under an exclusive five-year agreement.

Universal is providing all of the unit’s initial financing. However, plans call for it to seek outside financial partners that would shoulder some production costs while keeping its pics in U’s distrib channels.

Meledandri and his staff are expected to provide about two to three pics per year, with the first most likely to hit screens in 2009.

Deal gives Universal a quick entry into the crowded toon biz, from which it has been almost completely absent as the other majors have been building inhouse units or pacting with outside providers to distribute CGI family pics. U has released only one toon in the past few years: the commercially underwhelming 2-D version of “Curious George.”

Universal found itself without a pipeline of family pics when its deal to buy DreamWorks fell through in late 2005. When DreamWorks was purchased by Paramount, the separately owned DreamWorks Animation moved its distrib pact there as well.

Maintaining a steady supply of family pics is doubly important at U because it is also in the theme park biz. Universal Studios derived a good number of attractions from DreamWorks animated characters when it distribbed its toons overseas and on homevid.

It’s not yet clear if the new division will work with outside animation studios or will buy or develop one to run inhouse.

Meledandri oversaw Fox’s 1998 acquisition of f/x house Blue Sky Studios and its transformation into Fox’s successful CG animation arm. Since then, he has supervised Blue Sky toons “Ice Age” (which grossed $383 million worldwide), “Robots” ($250 million) and last year’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” ($637 million).

Most recently, he has been shepherding “The Simpsons: The Movie,” “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and another “Ice Age” sequel.

U, Meledandri and Fox declined comment.