As a boy growing up in 1970s New York, Chris Meledandri never saw any cartoons or animated movies. His early film experiences came courtesy of Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, rather than Walt Disney.
This was due to a particular approach to child-rearing, popular in some circles at the time, where parents treated their offspring like adults. “The films that I was exposed to were the films my parents were interested in seeing as opposed to anything remotely resembling a film that was appropriate for children,” he says, a little wistfully.
Fast forward a few decades and the boy who was denied age-appropriate entertainment has become a man who excels at making it. Despicable Me 2, produced by Illumination Entertainment, the company Mr Meledandri founded in 2007, was 2013’s top-grossing animated movie, outstripping rival efforts from the likes of Disney and DreamWorks Animation. The sequel to the 2010 original, featuring the skinny-legged super-villain Gru and his peculiar miniature yellow cohorts, the Minions, is released in China this month, having already generated $920m worldwide.
It is lunchtime and Mr Meledandri is sitting in a restaurant in Santa Monica, a short distance from his office – a warehouse-like building populated with cut-outs of Minions and characters from his other movies, such as The Lorax, an adaptation of the Dr Seuss story.
There is no sign outside the office to reveal the identity of the company within and visitors may encounter Harpo, a friendly beagle, who belongs to one of the employees and who runs about at his own leisure. “He is the self-appointed office dog,” Mr Meledandri says.
It is a low-key workspace, which fits Mr Meledandri’s own temperament. A quiet man who weighs each word carefully when answering a question, he does not fit the typical Hollywood mogul mould. Yet he has become one of the industry’s rising stars thanks to hits such as the Despicable Me films and a record that includes launching the blockbuster Ice Age series while heading the animation business at 20th Century Fox.
His own path to Hollywood began with that early exposure to the great directors of the 1970s but took on more urgency when he was studying English at Dartmouth College, where he was taught by David Thomson, the eminent British film critic and historian. “He really cemented my love of cinema and a desire to make that my life’s work,” he says.
A month before graduating, his father, a clothing designer, died of a heart attack and Mr Meledandri had to attend to his father’s affairs and phase out his business. One of his father’s friends, Dan Melnick, was a producer who had made films such as All That Jazz and Straw Dogs. He offered Mr Meledandri a job as a gofer. “It was a leap into what was previously a myth . . . the myth of Los Angeles and the movie business.” This first job was the antithesis of Hollywood glamour. “My responsibilities ranged from taking the dog to the vet, to shopping for Christmas gifts, to being a courier for 35mm film canisters so that [Melnick] could screen movies at his house.”
Yet the experience he gained was invaluable. “I got complete access and exposure to virtually every aspect of producing a film, from the earliest conversations about ideas, to script development, to scheduling and budgeting, to marketing.”
It was, he says, the ultimate grounding. “I was coming from New York City so I thought I was pretty savvy but I found it quite intimidating, actually,” he says. “Going from having studied Billy Wilder films in school to seeing Billy Wilder have lunch with my boss.”
The director of classics such as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot was still working in Hollywood when 22-year-old Mr Meledandri came to town. He helped Wilder locate a rare poster and the director said he wanted to do something for him in return.
A year later, Wilder tracked Mr Meledandri down and gave him a poster from the Metropolitan Opera. “It was a poster of these three short pieces that David Hockney had designed the sets for,” he says. The gesture had a big effect on him. “It was a reminder of how much impact you can have in extending yourself to younger people who are setting out.”
In the years that followed, Mr Meledandri cut his teeth as a production executive, working on films such as Footloose and Cool Runnings, the film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team, which he produced for a Disney label, before moving to 20th Century Fox. “When I went to Fox they looked at me and said, well, you must know something about family films, having just made a hit Disney movie.”
This led to three films where he was assigned to work with the late John Hughes, the writer and director of classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, before he was eventually asked to run Fox’s new family division, which took him into animation.
An early project, Titan A.E. – a mix of traditional animation with computer generated imagery (CGI) – was a huge flop and was “extremely painful . . . I was fortunate to have had my job spared”. But the studio persisted with Mr Meledandri. He decided to make the company’s next movie entirely in CGI, using Blue Sky Studios, a small New York-based company that had never produced anything longer than three minutes. The result was Ice Age and a string of other hits followed before he left to start Illumination Entertainment with the backing of Universal Pictures.
Universal owns about half of Illumination. Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, its parent company, recently hailed Despicable Me 2 as the most profitable film in the 100 year history of the studio – quite an accolade when its releases over the years include Jaws and E.T.
Illumination remains a lean operation to keep costs down, Mr Meledandri explains. “All of the decision makers are at the table on a day-to-day basis.”
He also set up the business to capitalise on the film industry’s rapid globalisation: about two-thirds of a film’s revenues now come from international markets, rather than the US – a big swing from a decade ago – so the company has a distinctly global flavour. Much of its animation is done in Paris, following the 2011 purchase of Mac Guff Ligne, a French digital studio, in a deal that was financed by Universal. Pierre Coffin, one of the two directors of the Despicable Me movies, is French. The films have a unique look, from the backgrounds and buildings, to the outlandish body shapes of the characters, which Mr Meledandri says is down to “the European style that the French team brings”.
The blend of European and American expertise was planned from the company’s inception. “We’re trying to move away from the idea that these are American movies to be enjoyed by a global audience,” he says. “They are made by a group of people that have an international complexion.”
In a town where you are only as important as your last hit, Illumination’s low-cost, internationally focused model has won him plenty of admirers. “It’s a distinctive model and it’s not necessarily better than anyone else’s,” he says, diplomatically. “But it works for us.”
• Culled from FT