The founder of Illumination Entertainment tells Wendy Mitchell about the wild success of Gru and the minions, and what other original stories are in the pipeline.

With a worldwide take of $965m and counting, Despicable Me 2 is the most profitable film in Universal’s 100-year history; it has also secured an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature.

It’s not just the minions who are responsible ― as Chris Meledandri, founder and CEO of Illumination Entertainment says, “The success of these films and the reaction of audience members is a credit to the extraordinary talent that has been assembled to work on these films. I’m fortunate to be working with extraordinary people from Los Angeles and Paris and many places in between.”

Meledandri, a producer on both the Despicable Me films, was a veteran of Disney and Fox when he set up Illumination in 2007 with Universal’s backing. The company soon had reach beyond its Santa Monica headquarters - it hired Mac Guff Ligne for animation on 2010’s Despicable Me; then, in 2011, Universal acquired Mac Guff to spearhead Illumination’s future animations. 

The French deal started as a practical move, because of competition for artists in the US. But it has also become a creative choice. Meledandri explains: “The decision to go to France, to go to Europe, has really been yielding even more benefits than the calibre of artists. It has contributed to a very distinct style. There is unquestionably a very European sensitivity in the films, both visually and attitudinally.”

Introducing Gru

Gru and his minions first came to life six years ago during the production of Despicable Me, which went on to make $543m worldwide.

Even with such huge success, Meledandri insisted a sequel had to be inspired creatively. “The decision was driven by the audience’s response to the film, combined with our exploration of where the story of these characters would lead us. We found we had an embarrassment of riches in terms of possibilities. That was a very important realisation. I’ve been part of movies in the past where we’ve made successful sequels but haven’t had that organic story evolution from the first film to the second.

“In this case it became clear to us that these characters’ stories were not complete. And we as the film-making team were very curious to see how Gru would fare as a father, whether or not he had the self-esteem to fall in love.”

Meledandri knew Despicable Me 2 had a chance at success, but says that he saw remarkable growth of the property’s popularity since the release of the first film in 2010. “We clearly got a sense that the attachment to these characters was growing, on DVD or on broadcast television,” he remembers. “The universe of people who had seen the film was expanding. We saw evidence of this online when we released our first teaser trailer for the sequel.”

Meledandri thinks the Despicable Me films have special appeal. “Gru is a damaged guy, that’s part of the reason why this movie is so interesting to me, it’s not only filled with joy and humour and sweetness, but the centre of the movie is a guy who is damaged. It gives the film dimension, it appeals in more than just a superficial way with adults.”

The company’s success is all the more notable because its features can sometimes cost about half of what a rival animation studio would spend on its tentpoles (Despicable Me 2 cost a reported $75m). Meledandri knows the studio process intimately, after working at Dawn Steel/Disney on films such as Cool Runnings and at Fox on the Ice Age series, Alvin And The Chipmunks and Horton Hears A Who!.

“There are many, many components that come from the years of the experiences that we’ve had… It would take a semester at a graduate school to walk through how we [make savings compared to our competitors],” he says. “Our strategy for containing budgets is comprehensive and it only works because we put artistry first. It allows us to move through different parts of the process faster because of the calibre of the artists that we’re working with. None of it could happen without our world-class artists.”

Minions get their due

Those world-class artists have a busy pipeline. Despicable Me 3 is being planned for a 2017 launch, but meanwhile there will be The Minions, a spin-off origins story of the famed yellow creatures, set mostly in 1960s London and New York. Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm lead the voice cast. “That’s an entirely new expression. It doesn’t have any of our Despicable Me characters in it, other than the minions,” Meledandri says.

The Minions, now about halfway through production, had been set for a December 2014 launch but has been moved back to summer 2015. Meledandri says: “We just realised how strong July has been for us with the first movie and the second movie and we thought with The Minions movie it just made a lot of sense to go to July again… Even if audiences don’t consciously realise it, they enjoy seeing one of these films in the summer and it just made sense to go back to the summer.”

Despicable Me 3 is in the story phase, now “heading into script phase”, he notes. 

Apart from the huge success of the Despicable films, Illumination is also planning more original stories. In 2016, there will be two original films released - details are under wraps but one of those will be directed by the UK’s Garth Jennings (Son Of Rambow).

And in 2017, there will be a full “reimagination” of Dr Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!. Meledandri has a strong working relationship with Audrey Geisel, the widow of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr Seuss), ever since she approved of his adaptations of Horton Hears A Who! (at Fox) and The Lorax (at Illumination).

“The designs [for The Grinch] are very much like Horton and The Lorax, and they will really come from Ted Geisel’s original drawings. The essence of the story will be very close to what I believe was his intent in writing the book.” No voice cast is attached yet, but Pete Candeland (who has worked on Gorillaz videos in the past) will direct.

Illumination timetable

  • 2007 Company founded, financed by Universal
  • 2010 Releases Despicable Me, making $543m
  • 2011 Releases Hop, making $184m
  • 2012 Releases The Lorax, making $348m
  • 2013 Releases Despicable Me 2, which makes $965m and counting
  • 2015 The Minions due for release on July 10
  • 2017 Despicable Me 3 due for release.