×

‘Minions’ and Illumination Create a Blockbuster Animation Unit for Universal

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • (from left) Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)

    Korea Box Office: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Topples ‘Exit,’ ‘Roar to Victory’  

    Opening on Wednesday, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” debuted on top of the South Korean box office. Showing on some 1,311 screens nationwide, the UPI release earned $15.1 million from 2.03 million admissions over five days. That included the four-day National Liberation Day weekend. “The Battle: Roar to Victory” remained in second. The [...]

  • Tracy Morgan Netflix stand-up special

    Film News Roundup: Tracy Morgan Joins Eddie Murphy's 'Coming 2 America'

    In today’s film news roundup, Tracy Morgan and Michael Rooker book roles in major movies, and Gravitas buys “Christmas Break-In.” CASTINGS Tracy Morgan has signed on to appear in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America” sequel as the brother of Lesley Jones’ character. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is directing the project with Murphy, Kevin [...]

  • Spider-Man Far From Home

    'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Gets Re-Release With New Scene

    Sony Pictures is re-releasing “Spider-Man: Far From Home” with a new action scene. Starting Aug. 29, a new extended cut, featuring four minutes of a never-before-seen action sequence, will be released in theaters in the United States and Canada. The film will also be available in IMAX and large formats in select locations. “Spider-Man: Far [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Supporters Back Matthew Modine After Clumsy Joke at SAG-AFTRA Meeting

    More than 100 women, including Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney, have voiced support for Matthew Modine’s campaign for SAG-AFTRA presidency, following a joke at a SAG-AFTRA meeting that some decried as misogynist. With voting set to conclude on Aug. 28, the campaigns have featured vitriolic attacks between supporters of Modine, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin and incumbent [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder

    Writers Guild Withdraws State Suit Against Agencies, Refiles in Federal Court

    The Writers Guild of America has withdrawn its state court suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners alleging packaging fees are illegal and re-filed suit in federal court. The WGA also responded to antitrust claims brought against the guild by the three agencies. Those agency suits alleged that the WGA abused its power in [...]

  • Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart

    Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award

    British actor Tim Roth is to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the art of film.” The ceremony at the Sarajevo Film Festival will be held on Tuesday. He will hold a masterclass on the same day. His first screen role was the lead in the controversial [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content