×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Illumination Chief Chris Meledandri Lines Up Originals for Universal

The man behind 'Despicable Me' has new projects in the works, amid adaptations of Uglydolls, Grinch, ‘Flanimals’

From the outside, Illumination Entertainment’s Santa Monica headquarters looks like any generic Los Angeles Westside warehouse, its nondescript brick exterior easily overshadowed by the graffiti-painted building next door. Inside, however, bright yellow Minions are swinging from the rafters, and the walls are covered in sketches, posters and other vibrant signs of the animation company’s true personality.

So far, that identity has been dominated by the bright yellow Minions, which not only helped propel Illumination’s 2010 blockbuster “Despicable Me” to its $543 million worldwide haul, but inspired a Universal Studios 3D ride and enabled “Despicable Me 2’s” rise to $470.6 million in just two weeks. A spinoff feature, “Minions,” is due out in December 2014.

Judging by the numbers, the creatures’ appeal is undeniable, and yet, Illumination honcho Chris Meledandri is also eager to introduce the studio’s next batch of unique characters. Considering the properties the company has been stockpiling in recent years — which include everything from Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch to the Uglydolls toy line — it has a wealth of options from which to choose.

“After the Minion movie, the next two movies will return to telling completely original stories,” Meledandri says. “Ideally, what I’ve wanted is for the company to achieve a balance between original stories and adaptations or extensions.”

Popular on Variety

Illumination hit paydirt with its first project, “Despicable Me,” an original concept Meledandri developed with inhouse writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio from a series of drawings by ex-Disney animator Sergio Pablos. Then came 2011 live-action/animation hybrid “Hop.” While not exactly a flop, the Easter Bunny-themed pic earned a disappointing $108 million domestically and $76 million overseas, failing to capitalize on the holiday’s untapped merchandising potential. Last year, Illumination rebounded with “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” which racked up just under $350 million worldwide.

“The history of most of my development is that it’s come from either me or my core team,” says Meledandri, who hatched “Horton Hears a Who!” and the “Ice Age” franchise when he was a top exec at 20th Century Fox. He declined to divulge the concept of Illumination’s next two projects, but said that at least one started with an idea he conceived and handed off to Paul and Daurio to flesh out. The other is being written by Michael LeSieur, whose “The Flamingo Thief” script he admires.

“It’s this communal process where whoever is the author of the original idea essentially evaporates,” Meledandri says. “It doesn’t look like any other relationship that I’m aware of between writers and the project.”

Sitting in his corner office, Meledandri is surrounded by shelves of Minions merch, various animation awards and assorted clues as to Illumination’s other active projects. Acknowledging a cluster of Uglydoll toys, he confirms that the company — which he co-owns with NBCUniversal — is still working on both that project and an adaptation of Ricky Gervais’ “Flanimals” book series.

At the same time, Illumination has scrapped a number of planned movie ideas. “Waldo” and a Tim Burton-helmed, stop-motion “The Addams Family” are dead. The company abandoned a Woody Woodpecker pic, and couldn’t crack “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

When it comes to adaptations, Meledandri is most excited about his partnership with Theodor Geisel’s widow, whom he met on “Horton,” paving the way for several future collaborations.

“Audrey Geisel had come to me when I started the company and said, ‘This is the one I want to do next,’ ” recalls Meledandri, referring to “The Lorax.” Given that film’s success, Illumination is working on “The Grinch” and a Dr. Seuss biopic, which it’s developing with Johnny Depp’s shingle, Infinitum Nihil, as a live-action movie with animated elements.

From Universal’s perspective, that collaborative spirit has been one of the virtues of partnering with Meledandri, whom execs consider unusually welcoming of studio feedback on both project creation and marketing. More important, Illumination has essentially put U back in the family movie business, and accomplished that feat at a fraction of the price of other toon outfits. At an estimated cost of $76 million, “Despicable Me 2” is Illumination’s priciest production yet — though still just half to one-third the cost of the typical Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks Animation feature.

Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson says that while U would love for Illumination to increase its output to more than the one film a year, it’s mindful that Meledandri is not just running Illumination, but is its creative force. “Both the quality and cost of those films are a direct result of his intimate involvement, and so there’s no simple path to scaling that up,” he says. “Whether it’s coming up with stories or supervising the character design, his fingerprints need to be all over these projects.”

Though Meledandri works from Illumination’s Santa Monica offices — a facility that houses three editing rooms, a marketing team and space for a rotating group of animators — one way he has been able to keep costs down is by outsourcing the animation to Paris-based studio Mac Guff, rather than competing for the limited pool of animators in Southern California.

In 2011, Illumination and Universal acquired Mac Guff, expanding the outfit’s small team to more than 500 during peak operations (up from 50 between projects). “It’s ultimately more efficient,” Meledandri says of the revised biz model. “While it’s a bigger overhead number, it’s getting amortized over a greater number of movies.”

Though Meledandri still travels to Paris to check in, the trips are less frequent now, with producer Janet Healy and Mac Guff partner Jacques Bled tasked with overseeing the French team. Meanwhile, everything from recording the actors to post-production work is handled in Los Angeles, part of a 24-hour work cycle enabled by the cross-continental setup.

“We’re in constant motion between these two places,” Meledandri says. “We could almost have our own airline.”

More Film

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]

  • KARNAWAL

    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

  • Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter'Mary Stuart' Play

    Ron Leibman, Tony-Winning Actor Known for 'Angels in America' and 'Friends,' Dies at 82

    Ron Leibman, an Emmy-winning actor who garnered a Tony for his work in Broadway’s “Angels in America” and played the father of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green on “Friends,” died on Friday. He was 82. Robert Attermann, CEO of Abrams Artists Agency, confirmed the news to Variety. No further details were immediately available. Leibman, a native [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content