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Meledandri, Universal team on deals

Illumination puts focus on family fare

Chris Meledandri’s Universal-based shingle has a name — Illumination — and a batch of deals.

Meledandri left Fox Animation nine months ago to put Universal into the family-film game; Illumination’s animated and live-action features will begin showing up in 2010.Work begins on the first animation project later this year, and by 2010, Meledandri said the company will generate two to three family films each year for U’s distribution pipeline.

Talent deals so far have been underwritten by Universal — several of the scribes signing pacts for pics were involved in recent Fox hits — but Meledandri and the studio confirm they will close a deal by later this year for outside coin that will co-finance both development and production slates.

Meledandri confirmed he made an exclusive deal with Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to write two animated films, but wouldn’t divulge the specific projects they are scripting. The duo wrote the feature adaptation of “Horton Hears a Who,” which Fox releases March 14. The writers also will become consultants on Illumination projects for several years.

Other animated projects will come from scribe Dan Harris (“Superman Returns”), who wrote and directed “Imaginary Heroes”; and Genndy Tartakofsky, the “Samurai Jack” creator who was writer-director of the animated series “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

Illumination also has made a deal by which the Hammer & Tongs team of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith (“Son of Rambow”) will create an animated feature.

The shingle is finalizing a deal for a family film project with Jon Vitti, who worked with Meledandri on “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Ice Age.”

“The Simpsons” vets Josh Lieb, Mike Reiss and Matt Selman are each working on live-action family scripts.

U chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde identified family fare as a prime growth opportunity, and enticed Meledandri to leave his prexy post at Fox Animation with the offer to build a company that makes him an equity owner with creative latitude.

“Universal is distribution partner and co-owner, but Illumination is an autonomous buyer,” said Meledandri, whose company will likely move onto the U lot later this year. “The structure allows me to work in concert with Donna Langley and Jimmy Horowitz’s group, as well as Focus or Rogue when appropriate. But the structure is that of a production company as opposed to a corporate division.”

Meledandri headed Fox’s animation group from 2000-07, and projects generated in that time grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. Fox permitted him to remain involved with “Horton,” on which he has exec producer credit.

During Illumination’s ramp-up, Meledandri named as head of creative John Cohen, his former Fox lieutenant who corralled the rights to “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which was turned into a moneymaker by Regency and Fox 2000.

Janet Healy, the former DreamWorks Animation co-head who most recently headed animation for IDT Entertainment, has been hired to oversee production.

Meledandri said Healy’s experience — which includes stints at Disney and ILM — was important, because Illumination won’t build an animation studio as Fox did with Blue Sky Studios. There are enough independent shops, he said, to handle intricate CG animation, and Illumination will partner with animation studios on a pic-by-pic basis. Meledandri also hired Adrienne Moss to head business affairs and Tito Ortiz as creative exec.

“Chris is a key strategic component of our family film strategy,” Linde and Shmuger said in a statement. “We have been impressed by his ability to identify and develop family-oriented material, his great relationships within the animation community and his overall sensibility about what appeals to family audiences.”

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