September 29, 2023

For Illumination Entertainment, Animation Meets Economic Reality

So what is Christopher Meledandri, the guy behind the “Ice Age” movies and “Despicable Me,” doing camped in a dreary office near a cement factory here? Where are all the creature comforts computer animation companies supposedly need to attract talent and inspire creativity?

As Mr. Meledandri will tell you, his is not a typical animation operation. He wants to prove that strict cost controls and hit animated films are not mutually exclusive, that these pictures do not have to cost $150 million, which is about what Paramount Pictures and its partners spent on “Rango.” They can cost $69 million, the budget for “Despicable Me.”

“Very few management layers, clear decision-making, shortening the length of time you spend developing a movie — it can be done,” he said. Hiring vocal talent with less star power and keeping investment in animation technology to a minimum also keep his costs down.

If Mr. Meledandri can deliver on that promise it will make his Illumination Entertainment the envy of Hollywood. At a time when moviegoing in North America is sputtering — attendance is down 20 percent so far this year compared with the same period last year — studios are racing toward the one genre that is reliably packing multiplexes: family films, particularly animated ones. The problem is that these computer-generated, broad-appeal movies almost without exception cost over $100 million to make.

By contrast, Mr. Meledandri’s latest film, “Hop,” cost $63 million. A hybrid of animation and live-action, “Hop,” billed as the story of “candy, chicks and rock ’n’ roll,” was a strong No. 1 over the weekend, selling an estimated $38 million at the North American box office.

Already, Mr. Meledandri’s fiscally cautious approach and track record — “Despicable Me” sold over $544 million at the global box office last summer — is re-ordering power on the Universal Pictures lot. For years, that studio’s dominant suppliers have been Imagine Entertainment, owned by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and Working Title Films, whose movies include “Nanny McPhee.” Now Illumination at the very least stands on equal footing.

Universal, which must keep all the egos in its producer ranks from colliding, plays down any rivalry. Mr. Meledandri’s ascension “should not make other producers feel competitive,” said Adam Fogelson, Universal’s chairman. While the animation giants are feeling some pressure from Illumination’s low-cost model, those competitors are also playing nice. For now.

“It’s not an accident that Chris has done great,” Mr. Katzenberg said. “He’s one of the true talents in the animation field.”

The rise of Illumination offers clues about the filmmaking priorities of Comcast, which took control of Universal in January. So far, the cable company has said almost nothing about its plans for the studio, and Stephen B. Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal, declined to comment for this article.

But Hollywood is reading the tea leaves. Universal has urged Illumination to hire more executives and double output to two pictures a year by 2013. Mr. Burke is “a huge, huge fan” of Mr. Meledandri, according to one NBC Universal executive who asked for anonymity to avoid conflicts with his boss. In particular, this person said, Mr. Burke likes Mr. Meledandri’s unflashy personal style, low-cost approach and eagerness to use NBC Universal’s other divisions for marketing purposes; with “Hop,” for instance, Easter eggs were hidden in the backgrounds of NBC’s Thursday night comedies.

“Our taste is in alignment,” Mr. Meledandri said of Mr. Burke, adding that he has had conversations with the NBC Universal chief about adding to Illumination’s presence at Universal theme parks.

Movies in Illumination’s pipeline are animated, live-action and a combination of both. Projects include a Tim Burton adaptation of “The Addams Family,” “Despicable Me 2,” a new take on “Curious George” and a “Where’s Waldo” movie. Mr. Meledandri’s 30 or so employees in Santa Monica are working to adapt “Flanimals,” the children’s book series by Ricky Gervais.

Mr. Meledandri also has close ties to the estate of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Illumination’s version of “The Lorax” is scheduled for release next year.

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