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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.”

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.”

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