SANTA MONICA, California – Hollywood’s cartoon kings typically work in splendiferous surroundings. Jeffrey Katzenberg runs DreamWorks Animation from a Mediterranean-style campus replete with olive trees and fountains. At Pixar’s glistening complex, John Lasseter has an Olympic-size swimming pool.
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 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 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, 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,” took in an estimated $38 million on its first weekend.
Already, 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. Meledandri’s ascension “should not make other producers feel competitive,” said Adam Fogelson, Universal’s chairman.
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. 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. Burke is “a huge, huge fan” of Meledandri, according to one NBC Universal executive who asked for anonymity to avoid conflicts with his boss. In particular, this person said, Burke likes 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,” Meledandri said of 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. Meledandri’s 30 or so employees in Santa Monica are working to adapt “Flanimals,” the children’s book series by Ricky Gervais.
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, and the company has an ongoing relationship with the Seuss estate.
Audrey Geisel, the author’s widow, was soured by her experience in 2003 with “The Cat in the Hat,” which was distributed by Universal, complaining about the casting of Mike Myers and sophomoric humour in the script. But Meledandri won her trust with his work on the 2008 movie adaptation of “Horton Hears a Who!”
“The quality of Chris’ work looks far beyond the means,” said Donna Langley, Universal’s co-chairwoman. “Watching him is quite a marvel to behold.”
Just who is this new Hollywood heavyweight?
The soft-spoken, somewhat chilly Meledandri, 51, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where his father, Roland Meledandri, operated an exclusive men’s clothing store frequented by entertainment power figures like the producer Robert Evans, a young David Geffen and Robert Redford.
After the young Meledandri graduated from Dartmouth, another customer of his father’s shop, a producer named Daniel Melnick, hired him to work as an assistant on “Footloose.” A few years later, after helping produce a string of minor films, Meledandri found himself running a production company that hit it big with “Cool Runnings,” a family comedy about the Jamaican bobsled team. That experience, combined with the birth of his first child, sent Meledandri on a path toward animation.
At 20th Century Fox Meledandri made a name for himself in that field, starting with “Ice Age” in 2003. The three “Ice Age” movies attracted more than $2 billion at the global box office. His credits also include “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Universal nabbed Meledandri in late 2007. Universal’s management at the time, in particular David Linde, who was the studio’s co-chairman, saw an opportunity to put Universal into the thick of the family entertainment chase. NBC Universal agreed to fully finance Illumination’s films. Whereas DreamWorks and Pixar do their animation in house, Illumination largely relies on an overseas rendering shop (which accounts for the spare headquarters in Santa Monica). Meledandri, who is Illumination’s chief executive, has an undisclosed equity stake, and his deal gives him a portion of box-office sales.
For all his accomplishments, Meledandri still has a lot to prove. Winning at animation is getting harder as competition grows, and DreamWorks and Pixar may be better positioned to continue leading the market because they do spend heavily on new computer technology, operate bigger development pipelines and employ their own artists. Illumination’s momentum could falter overnight with one big flop.
And for all of Meledandri’s talk about lean and mean, it is difficult to stop fat from accumulating at a company over time. Asked about how he will address that challenge, Meledandri clasped his hands behind his head and stared into space for a moment. “A lot of it is about a mindset and adhering to that mindset,” he finally said. “You can’t become intoxicated with success.”