'Despicable Me' turns Universal into a film player in digital animation
LOS ANGELES -- For Universal Pictures, all it took was some puny yellow minions to tackle the giants of animation. The studio's movie "Despicable Me," about a villain who enlists an army of yapping subordinates to assist in his nefarious deeds, r...
LOS ANGELES -- For Universal Pictures, all it took was some puny yellow minions to tackle the giants of animation.
The studio's movie "Despicable Me," about a villain who enlists an army of yapping subordinates to assist in his nefarious deeds, racked up $118.4 million in its first 10 days at the box office, granting Universal something that has long eluded it: a family-friendly animated blockbuster.
Such a windfall represents a turning point for the General Electric Co.-owned studio, which has lagged behind rivals Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios in establishing a foothold in the increasingly popular genre of digitally animated movies.
Three years ago, recognizing it was missing out on the computer-animation gold rush, Universal lured executive Chris Meledandri away from Rupert Murdoch's Fox studio to spearhead its entry into the family film market. At Fox, Meledandri helped turn around the studio's traditional animation business into a digital animation powerhouse with hits such as the "Ice Age" films and "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!"
In an industry buffeted by declining theater attendance and softening DVD sales, animation is one of the few bright spots. Franchises such as "Ice Age" and Pixar's "Toy Story," which appeal to broad audiences here and abroad and command premium priced tickets to 3-D shows, can generate hundreds of millions in profit for studios.
Given that environment, establishing a presence in animation is "the single biggest game-changer we can have," Universal Pictures Co-Chairman Adam Fogelson said.
Universal, which over the years had been steadily profitable, needs a game-changer given its track record of the past 15 months because of such costly flops as "Green Zone," "The Wolfman" and "Land of the Lost."
With "Despicable Me's" better-than-expected results standing out in a crowded animation field, Universal Co-Chairman Donna Langley said, "We saw there was room for another player."
That player is Meledandri's own animation company, Illumination Entertainment, whose movies Universal finances and distributes. The studio recently extended Meledandri's exclusive, multi-year contract, which entitles the producer to a percentage of his movies' profits.
Given that Illumination's first time at bat with "Despicable Me" was a home run, Fogelson and Langley acknowledge that it validates the decision made three years ago by their predecessors Marc Shmuger and David Linde to draft Meledandri as the studio's go-to family guy.
Meledandri's business plan, however, differs from other studios. He keeps overhead low by employing only 35 people at an office on an industrial block in Santa Monica. By contrast, DreamWorks and Pixar employ staffs of more than 2,000 and 1,200, respectively, who work at lavish, sprawling campuses.
"We believe that small is more efficient," said Meledandri, who contracted with an animation house in Paris to produce "Despicable Me" and other projects. Hands-on, Meledandri embedded his producing associates and key executives to manage the productions -- and pays the salaries of some 200 people working on his movies -- to maintain control.
With a production budget of $69 million, "Despicable Me" cost less than half of rival digitally animated films, in part because Illumination saves money by working with first-time directors and teaming experienced artists with younger, less costly talent.