Chris Meledandri, the man who has made millions from Minions

January 5, 2014 2:00 pm

Chris Meledandri, the man who has made millions from Minions

By Matthew Garrahan

Gofer made good: Chris Meledandri’s ‘Despicable Me 2’ was 2013’s top-grossing animated movie

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.

The CV

Born
1959, New York City
Education
1982 BA in English, Dartmouth College

Career
1981-86 Assistant to Dan Melnick, working his way up to the role of associate producer
1990 President of Dawn Steel Company
1993 Executive producer, Cool Runnings
1993 Joins 20th Century Fox 
1998 
Founding president of 20th Century Fox animation
2002 Executive producer, Ice Age
2007 Forms Illumination Entertainment
2010 Despicable Me released
2012 The Lorax released
2013 Despicable Me 2released

Family 
Married to Leslie, two sons

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 andStraw 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.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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