Disney has Mickey Mouse, Warners has Bugs Bunny, but until just eight years ago, Universal Studios hadn’t put much stock in cartoon characters. Now, one can hardly reference the studio or its recent success without invoking the Minions — those goggle-eyed, overall-wearing yellow whatzits that have helped buoy the studio to its current pole position — or Chris Meledandri, the exec responsible for their existence.

The Minions — which are featured in three of the studio’s top-grossing features, “Despicable Me” ($251.5 million domestic), “Despicable Me 2” ($368.1 million domestic) and “Minions” ($335 million domestic) — are the direct result of a gamble between Universal and the former Fox Animation prexy. NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer invited Meledandri to create a company, Illumination Entertainment, that would operate in partnership with Universal to produce a series of pics geared toward the broadest family audience possible (which needn’t necessarily be animated, as 2011’s “Hop” demonstrated).

“At that time, I was excited by the idea of the building phase,” says Meledandri, who had effectively assembled Fox’s toon empire from the ground up, partnering with Blue Sky to produce such hits as “Ice Age” and “Robots.” “I was drawn to Universal’s offer of a level of absolute unconditional support by a group of highly intelligent people who just happened to be in a slump at that moment.”

For relative peanuts (at least compared to the price of acquiring a fully fledged toon studio), Universal underwrote the launch of Illumination, which started with just two employees — Meledandri and Kelly Martin, who had been his executive assistant at Fox — and has since grown to more than 700, thanks to a successful partnership with Paris-based animation outfit Mac Guff.

The slump Meledandri remembers didn’t last long either. Mere months after the release of “Despicable Me,” Comcast bought NBC Universal. Incoming CEO Steve Burke immediately recognized Illumination’s value, including the company’s toons in his new cross-divisional Project Symphony initiative, whereby the movies received exposure via all the avenues Universal has to reach potential audiences.

Franchise Players
The Minions help drive B.O. for the Illumination franchise.
$543m “Despicable Me” grabbed a blockbuster worldwide B.O.
$970m “Despicable Me 2’s” worldwide B.O. foreshadowed the next franchise film’s success.
$1.15b Worldwide box office for 2015’s “Minions”

Burke also decided to create Illumination-inspired attractions in Universal Studios theme parks, going so far as to include the company in the conceptualization and design of what became Minion Mayhem and Super Silly Fun Land. “I feel that 360-degree involvement is critical to maintaining the integrity of our projects,” says Meledandri, “and it all comes out of this very unique way that we’re allowed to work with Universal.”

In exchange for the independence he enjoys, Meledandri makes it a habit to share ideas for possible upcoming projects with Universal honchos Donna Langley and Jeff Shell at a very early stage. “Part of our strategy has always been to keep a very low ratio of developed projects to produced projects, which helps us to stay very focused on where we spend our resources,” Meledandri says. He’s also open to studio suggestions. That’s led Illumination to consider creating movies around characters to whom its parent studio held the rights.

“We’ve looked at some of the Universal library properties, but to be honest, we couldn’t crack it in development in a way that satisfied my expectations.”
Of “Curious George,” he admits, “I love the Reys’ book. I grew up on it, my kids grew up on it, but I found I was distorting aspects of the underlying material that I didn’t feel comfortable with.”

As for the more obnoxious “Woody Woodpecker,” “There just wasn’t an expression of it that we were able to come up with that I felt was the basis for a compelling 85-minute movie.”

Illumination had better luck with Theodor Seuss Geisel’s “The Lorax,” and plans to follow that up with another Dr. Seuss adaptation, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“One of the commitments I made to myself when I started Illumination was that the company would be half original properties and half adaptations or sequels,” Meledandri says.

With “Despicable Me 3” on the horizon for 2017, sequels have more than satisfied the latter category, meaning it’s high time for Illumination to unveil a few originals. Next summer brings “The Secret Lives of Pets,” based on one of Meledandri’s own ideas, followed by a musical comedy starring Matthew McConaughey as a showbiz koala named Buster.

Still, the company’s lowest grosser, “Hop,” taught the Illumination team a valuable lesson. “Could you see us doing a live-action film in the future? Very possibly, but it’s entirely opportunistic,” he says, making it clear that there are no non-animated projects in the works. “When we make a decision to veer off of our core business, one thing that I’ll look for is to have the passion and conviction of one of the members of our team be behind it” — along with Universal’s blessing, of course.