With tomorrow’s Blu-ray/DVD release of the blockbuster and Oscar-contending Despicable Me 2 from Universal, it’s a great time to catch up once again with Illumination’s Chris Meledandri, who made the Vanity Fair list of top media disruptors for the second consecutive year.
In fact, Meledandri admits that being a disruptor is part of the secret of his great success: he’s a subversive storyteller, who then makes it marketable to audiences around the world, which is why Ice Age and Despicable Me have become huge global franchises.
“I go back to family: Ice Age was about disparate characters rejected by their own kind,” Meledandri suggests. “They come together to save the child. Despicable Me is about redefining what a family could be. It has a visual distinction and an experimental quality. It also has an immersive quality that delivers the theatrical experience.”
Meledandri would rather be a disruptor than part of the crowd and always looks to push himself out of his comfort zone. That’s the ethos of his storytelling and the lesson that he learned from the failure of Titan A.E., which became the price of admission to the rest of his career when he was head of animation at Fox. He also had a fear of change, but after 13-and-a-half years, it was time to move on and build something new as a continuation of personal growth.
“For us, everything starts with character. I believe people leave a theater bonding with characters. Story is the vessel that carries character. Comedy is a very important component of expressing character. We lean on subversive characters. Gru and the Minions are subversive. They are written by adults for adults but not inappropriate for children.”
Meledandri also stresses marketability — he has to know how they’re going to market a movie, which he views as an extension of content creation. Indeed, among Despicable Me 2’s industry-leading 11 Annie nominations are one for the Minions short and one for a commercial.
One of his keys is betting on talent and identifying talent in others. With Despicable Me, he paired up directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, who’ve injected a Clouseau-like slapstick brand of comedy that has been widely embraced. At the same time, Meledandri has successfully adopted a hybrid business model (part indie, part studio) by making movies in France at Illumination MacGuff for roughly half the cost of his U.S. rivals, which also provides a fresh European look.
This has resulted in Despicable Me 2 racking up $367.1 million domestically, which ranks #4 on the all-time list of computer-animated features, and $918 million worldwide, which is a record for Universal.
“Because of this volatile period, it’s also an exhilarating period,” Meledandri offers. “It demands [entrepreneurship]. I worry about the competition for young eyeballs. If you look at animation right now, it’s similar to live-action event films. We release too many of them and they are starting to cannibalize each other. Quality storytelling is our only safety net. But I love to discover feelings I never had before.”
Meanwhile, Meledandri is looking ahead to his upcoming Minions prequel in 2015 (directed by Coffin and Kyle Balda), which stars the very hot Sandra Bullock as the villain, Scarlett Overkill, paired with the equally hot Jon Hamm of Mad Men as her husband/inventor Herb Overkill. And Meledandri couldn’t be more pleased with the prestige and success of Gravity. When I told him that everyone is talking more about her riveting performance than the game-changing tech, he beamed: “Sandra works very hard and I can’t wait to tell her that.”
Once again, Meledandri has made the right bet when it comes to talent.