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Chris Meledandri: Event Films Are Cannibalizing Each Other

Too many tentpoles, not enough training for storytellers, minion maestro tells VFX Summit

Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri said Saturday that the feature film business has entered an unprecedented period of volatility and that it is losing — or has already lost — the next generation of potential moviegoers.

“Everybody’s familar with the broad issues, wheether it’s the continued contraction of the DVD marketplace, the disappointment in the domestic sustainability of audience interest in 3D. Things are coming at us from all sides,” Meledandri told the Visual Effects Society Summit in Hollywood. “The thing I worry about the most is the competition for young eyeballs. We’ve got so many other competing forms of media and entertainment and content.”

Meledandri cited his own experience with his sons, who are 14 and 23. “I observe in them is a very different relationship to the cinema than I’ve ever seen in previous generations. Simply put: They don’t have to go to the movies. I worry about a generation growing up without that habitual commitment to the movie theater.”

One major issue facing the industry, he said, is the number of “event” films being released. “If you look at what’s happening with animation right now, it’s quite similar to what’s happening with live action event films, which is the industry releases too many of them and there’s not enough room for them. They’re unquestionably going to cannibalize each other and we’re starting to see that. As our films continue to aspire to be films that speak to all audiences, we’re also competing against the live action event films.”

“Now more than ever as an industry we have to be diligent about doing things that will strengthen and further us rather than contributing to some of the problems we face.”

Meledandri, spoke in a keynote conversation at the W Hotel. Though Illumination’s “Despicable Me 2” is set to surpass $900 million at the box office, he said that he’s never seen another period when it was so hard to project the future of the business. “The only thing that’s certain is we’re in a period of uncertainty.” He said quality storytelling “is our only safety net,” but noted that there is little formal training for storytellers within the feature business.

“Television is a writer-driven business,” he said. “You have writers training other writers, having their work challenged by other writers. It’s a natural evolutionary process, where the film business is a very solitary business for writers.” It took him 20 years, he said, including much trial and error and failures including “Titan A.E.,” to feel confident about his own storytelling skills.

Meledandri ended by telling the gathering this era demands entrepreneurship. “Even in this volatile period, or maybe because of this volatile period, I find it’s a very exhilarating period, because we can’t look backwards to chart our path forward. It doesn’t work. And there’s something very liberating about that.”

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