Chris Meledandri doesn’t exactly exude power.
Many studio chiefs thrive on the grip and grin of Hollywood events, hogging the attention and drinking in the approbation. When the Illumination Entertainment chief, however, took the stage at the Lincoln Center premiere of “The Secret Life of Pets” last month to introduce the film, he seemed almost apologetic about taking the spotlight. Sporting jeans and a blue blazer, the low-key, even keeled Meledandri looked more like an estate planner settling in for casual Friday than a mogul at an A-list gathering. In look and demeanor, he is far removed from Pixar chief John Lasseter’s Hawaiian shirt-clad, visionary vibe or DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s coiled intensity.
But the animated film’s massive $103.2 million launch this weekend solidifies Meledandri among the most successful people in the animation space and reaffirms his status as one of the movie industry’s biggest hit-makers.
“You usually only see an original property debut like that when it’s from Pixar,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst. “It cements Illumination as one of the premiere animation outfits in the industry.”
It gives the Illumination head a second major franchise to augment his “Despicable Me” sequels and spinoffs, all at a time when the business is struggling to launch marquee series. This year, in fact, has been a graveyard for films such as “The Legend of Tarzan” and “Gods of Egypt” that were clearly intended to trigger parts two, three and beyond.
Meledandri’s influence will likely continue to grow after Universal completes its $4.1 billion acquisition of DreamWorks Animation. It’s not clear what role Meledandri will play, but Universal, which owns Illumination, envisions him acting as a sort of creative guru, akin to the part that Lasseter plays overseeing all of Disney’s animated offerings.
“Chris has built Illumination from scratch, so we want to make sure that whatever we do with Chris, we don’t lose the special sauce that made that place so fantastic,” Jeff Shell, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman, told Variety last spring. “The number one most important thing is that he keep running and building Illumination. We believe that’s a strong brand. But his involvement [in DreamWorks Animation] is as much as he can or wants to do.”
It’s a heady time for Meledandri. For all its success, however, it’s not clear that Illumination is a recognizable brand. Consumers know what they’re getting with a Pixar or Disney film, there are certain expectations that accompany a Marvel adventure and the Weinstein Company remains synonymous with a type of specialty, art house production. Though moviegoers know the Minions, most would probably be unable to name the mischievous yellow guys’ creator.
That could change. Just as Pixar built a reputation for genre-bending stories and DreamWorks Animation profited from its pop-culture rich and scatological sensibility, there are certain recognizable characteristics that define an Illumination offering. The films have an antic pace, offering up an abundance of physical comedy in the manner of “The Three Stooges” or “Looney Toons.” Universal domestic distribution chief Nick Carpou defines the Illumination brand as “slightly subversive, funny films with great charm and highly relatable characters.”
They also come with protagonists, such as the Minions or the dogs and cats in “Pets,” that practically cry out to be turned into plush toys — spawning lucrative revenue streams for Universal.
What makes Illumination doubly valuable to Universal is it produces films at a fraction of what it takes DreamWorks Animation or Pixar to make a movie. “The Secret Life of Pets” had a $75 million budget, “Despicable Me” carried a $69 million price tag and “Minions” set its creators back $74 million. In contrast, most DreamWorks Animation films cost upwards of $150 million and Pixar routinely spends in the neighborhood of $200 million in its pursuit of artistic excellence.
“They are lean and mean,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “They’re able to produce huge profit margins.”
Some of Illumination’s savings come from outsourcing its design to subsidy-rich France. It also keeps costs low by dialing down on frills and maintaining a small staff. In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Meledandri said he was able to save money with “very few management layers, clear decision-making, shortening the length of time you spend developing a movie.”
Of course, costs can rise over the course of a franchise’s life — just ask the makers of economical blockbusters such as “Twilight” that saw budgets soar by the time their franchises wrapped up. It’s possible that Louis C.K. and the rest of “The Secret Life of Pets” cast could demand raises when they make the inevitable sequel, cutting into Universal and Illumination’s profits.
As for Meledandri, his next test will be “Sing.” The musical competition film rolls into theaters at the end of 2016 and features the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Seth MacFarlane, playing a menagerie of singing animals. Its box office prospects likely got a big boost from “The Secret Life of Pets'” success. Universal attached an extended, four-minute trailer to the film, hoping to whet audiences’ appetites for the next Meledandri effort.
If “Sing” hits the right notes, maybe Meledandri and Illumination will finally be household names.