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Chris Meledandri is Changing How Animated Features Are Produced

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.”

  • Kind of ironic given his apparent importance, but you spelled his name wrong in the post title…

    • AmidAmidi


  • Laura

    One of the smartest, and also nicest executives in the industry. Congrats to him and Illumination.

  • George_Cliff

    Amid this article makes me very nervous for the future of feature animation. I don’t think it’s a terrible stretch to see a not too distant Hanna-Barberafication of feature animation.

    • SarahJesness

      I suppose it’s possible… But hard to say. In the current Hollywood climate, it’s all about the big hits. It’s like, to be a moderate success is to be a failure. Nobody gives a crap unless

      Not to mention that people these days don’t usually go to the movies constantly. Tickets have gotten expensive, and a lot of people like to buy the overpriced snacks. Have a family in the equation, it’s not something you’ll do all the time. TV shows, in contrast, you can just flip on without having to pay extra.

      Cheaper animated films can come with good or bad. Like you said, it could result in a lot of crap. But at the same time, it could also encourage studios to take more risks. If a cheap but riskier movie fails, the studio won’t be too discouraged from taking risks because they didn’t lose TOO much money.

  • Cheese

    I went to Box Office Mojo to check out how much “Despicable Me 2” spent to get their animated feature done, and WOW!!! $76 million?!? That’s kind of like $7 million of budget from Wizart’s “The Snow Queen,” and cheaper than Disney and Pixar’s $200 million budget from “Toy Story 3!” Incredible! Meledandri, you’re good!

    • MonsieurU

      Remember that the average budget for a french/european feature is around 10 million euros. MacGuff’s budgets are HUGE by their standards.

  • Dana B

    I was just thinking about Illumination this morning and they just came out of nowhere with Despicable Me and blew away audiences and the industry from the start! Who knew little yellow gibbering creatures would be a force to be reckoned with.
    Their production strategy is very smart, too. It doesn’t always need to be all bells and whistles to impress. You can have crappy looking cgi, but if the characters are genuine and likable with a great story, that alone makes it memorable. I’ll admit, I love great visuals and detail, but if studios need to cut corners with it yet still keeping good fundamentals of storytelling, It wouldn’t bother me much.

    • What’s brilliant about the strategy is that even on modest budgets, they are still able to achieve good-looking CG. It’s not as insanely detailed as a Disney or Pixar, but it still tells the story in a totally visually appealing way. I wish there were some more producers willing to take this mid-budget route with more creatively-daring projects. Lower budgets and lower risk movies often translate to more freedom for directors. I can think of tons of examples of this in live-action, but in animation, not so many.

    • Mark

      I was actually watching Despicable Me 2 about three hours ago and the whole time I could not stop thinking about how appealing the CG and animation was. I completely forgot they had a low budget until I saw this article. They did a really great job on this movie and it deserves all of its success.

  • Caitlin Cadieux

    I was disappointed on initially hearing that they were trimming to come up with Despicable Me 2’s lower budget, but didn’t notice a thing when I saw the actual movie. Seems like a pretty smart move, and it definitely seems like it’s working. I wonder how this might affect the processes at Pixar and elsewhere.

  • Sandra Murta

    “Producer-driven approach to film making”, sounds grim :(

    • Why? If that makes it possible to create films, why would it be grim? Having a producer on board doesn’t necessarily mean a film gets ruined, although that seems to be a deeply rooted belief of animators.

  • mac

    He’s making and marketing hits. The commoditization of DAG hierarchy manipulation for computer graphics is on the industrial level of the MS Access that might drive a liquor stores financial books, but everything you read focuses on that aspect, as if to shame big firm for being big firms.

  • Just comes to show that budget is not everything.

  • Who? What?

    Janet Healy, “I just don’t know what it is”… Classic Janet. I’m sure you don’t.

  • Joseph

    One of the most frustrating things about animation is having clients who don’t have any vision and don’t want to engage with the development process and only give feedback towards the end of the production.

  • DuckDuckRabbit

    Is this a new strategy since Meledandri produced ‘Hop’? Because that was a bloated, expensive, indecisive mess with producers, director, and supervisors all on completely different pages. That production was basically the opposite of everything described above.

  • Floyd Norman

    The quirky, creative cartoon business is now an industry. Glad I’m no longer a part of it.

  • RickyButler89

    wait….you don’t need to spend $200m to make a successful animated feature?!! Thanks for the insight!
    Oh, and although the minions are pretty derivative anyway…..thanks for making sure other producers think that to have a successful movie now, you need an army of miniature creatures speaking in non-sensical tongues for comic relief.

  • sam wilson

    Great for that guy! But I don’t want to watch endless Dr Seuss adaptations and Despicable Me sequels. Melendandri’s output thus far has shown us what his new style of producing will look like. How can good original products be made with no strong concept phase. Instead the plan is to make things taht you already know can be produced and make money, more sequels and adaptations.

  • Gabriel Schleifer

    You know what approach I like?

    “Let’s make a really good movie!”

  • Chad Townsend

    i remember when Cameron’s Titanic came out and cost $200 million… the highest budget ever at the time. now its a drop in the bucket