Despicable Me 2 is on track to become the most profitable film in Universal Pictures’ 100-plus year history, and that has turned Illumination Entertainment head Chris Meledandri into the current darling of Hollywood. This Bloomberg Businessweek piece is one of the few things I’ve read about Meledandri’s low-budget approach to feature animation. He pioneered this lower-risk model while he was at Fox, where he was responsible for the Ice Age series, one of the most successful animated feature franchises in history.
“We’re not spending our money on every blade of grass and the leaves on the trees,” says Janet Healy, who is Meledandri’s co-producer. Not only is the production process more restrained, but so is the development process. Illumination picks and chooses exactly what it wants to produce instead of spending money developing numerous pictures that may never move into production. Illumination’s US office has only 35 employees, and though most of the creative work is done elsewhere (particularly Mac Guff in Paris), that’s still a modest corporate structure for a feature animation studio.
Meledandri, like DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and increasingly John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney, prides himself on the producer-driven approach to filmmaking. He mentions in the article that there is never any dissent because he oversees creative approvals on a daily basis: “There is never a situation where a production proceeds down a path only to discover those with ultimate creative authority aren’t in agreement.” The strategy has worked exceedingly well for him so far, though the strategy isn’t always clear, even to those who work with him. “I think he’s got a vision,” says his co-producer Healy. “I just don’t know what it is.”