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Jeff Shell: DreamWorks Animation Deal Turns Chris Meledandri into Universal’s John Lasseter

Jeff Shell Universal Variety Showman of
Art Streiber for Variety

NBCUniversal has big plans for Chris Meledandri to serve as the creative guru overseeing its animation operations, Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, told Variety on Thursday.

NBCU parent Comcast’s $3.8 billion investment in DreamWorks Animation, announced Thursday, is a bold bid to challenge Disney in the family film space. But the studio is being careful to stress that the new acquisition isn’t intended to edge out Meledandri, whose Illumination Entertainment is responsible for the studio’s “Despicable Me” franchise.

“The model that we’re trying to use is John Lasseter,” said Shell, referencing the Pixar co-founder who oversees the creative direction of both Pixar and Disney Animation.

“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,” he added. “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.”

DreamWorks Animation’s library includes film and TV toon franchises including “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Penguins of Madagascar.”

When news of talks first seeped out, analysts and industry insiders wondered if Meledandri’s feathers would be ruffled. However, DreamWorks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg will not be heavily involved in the studio side of the business if the deal is consummated and will instead serve in an advisory capacity, limiting the potential for any clash of executive egos.

“We want to have more of Chris’ involvement, rather than less,” said Shell. “We see this as a way of him having a much larger role.”

The deal for DreamWorks Animation came into place quickly, following two weeks of negotiations, Shell said. Consequently, many of the finer points are still being worked out. However, Illumination and DreamWorks Animation will continue to exist as two separate and distinct brands, much as Disney Animation and Pixar operate as two separate spheres.  The goal is for both studios to contribute as many as three to four animated films annually.

The Lasseter example could be instructive. After Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for $7.6 billion it tasked the company’s leaders,  Ed Catmull and Lasseter, with reinvigorating Disney’s flailing animation unit. In place of flops such as “Home on the Range” and “Brother Bear,” the pair has re-focused the division on producing bolder, more innovative stories, producing hits such as “Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia.”

Taking over DreamWorks Animation, could involve some navigating some pre-existing corporate relationships. The studio currently has a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox that extends through 2017. When Disney bought Marvel, the studio bought the comic book maker out of an output deal with Paramount Pictures, but that probably will not happen with Fox and DreamWorks Animation. Shell said that the company is likely to let the deal run its course.

Even if Meledandri takes a larger role. Shell said that he also expects to retain DreamWorks Animation’s brain trust. He cited DreamWorks Animation president Ann Daly, television head Marjorie Cohn, and feature animation co-presidents Mireille Soria and Bonnie Arnold, among those he would like to see stay with the company after the sale goes through.

“We spent a lot of money to buy the company and they’re a core part of what we’re buying,” said Shell.

Comcast, which has theme parks and cable assets in its portfolio, was partly driven to write the check out of a desire to better compete with Disney. Under CEO Bob Iger, Disney has moved aggressively in recent years to snap up top brands, shelling out billions of dollars to buy LucasFilm, Pixar, and Marvel. By combining the firepower of Illumination and DreamWorks Animation, Comcast hopes it can grab more land in the family film space, while launching rides, toys and other merchandising lines based around animated characters such as Shrek and Po.

“We’ve separated ourselves a little bit,” said Shell. “When you look at the world of animation, Disney is clearly the leader with Pixar and Disney Animation. Now we’re number two, and hopefully one day we’ll be number one.”

(Pictured: Jeff Shell)