WHAT CAN you buy for a half-billion dollars in Hollywood?
Well, if you’re Chris Meledandri, founder of Illumination Entertainment, you can make seven films on that production tab, including three current or strong potential franchises, that gross more than a whopping $4.3 billion.
Now, with the new animated smash “Sing” — which had a winning New Year’s weekend to grow its global box office to $277.8 million in two weeks of release — Illumination has capped a banner 2016 with films that scored beyond even the bottom line.
Because with “Sing” and last summer’s huge hit “The Secret Life of Pets,” 2016 was the year that Illumination creatively became much more than the House of Minions.
Illumination, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio that provides family fare for Universal, proved that it has a repeatable formula for success beyond its “Despicable Me” films: create amusing movies featuring highly engaging anthropomorphic animals for less than half of what many big-studio cartoon films cost.
Before 2016, Illumination had scored a modest hit with 2011’s “Hop” and, a year later, did well with “Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.” But the studio had a single go-to franchise: 2010’s “Despicable Me” grossed $543 million globally — just about equal to Illumination’s total reported production budget to date — and spawned the monster hits “Despicable Me 2” in 2013 ($970.8 million worldwide) and 2015’s “Minions” ($1.159 billion). Add in the sales of all cute yellow Minion merchandising, and Illumination had one property it could bank on. (“Despicable Me 3” is set to land this June.)
But “Despicable Me” writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul then brought their deft skills with spinning family-friendly adventures to “The Secret Life of Pets,” which grossed more than $875 million worldwide last year — making it the highest-grossing non-Disney film in 2016 (no small feat).
Now, with “Sing,” a former Disney employee — writer-director Garth Jennings — delivered to Illumination another family-skewing hit movie packed with a broad cast of CGI-animated animals.
What Illumination is accomplishing here isn’t just track-record success; the studio is also building an identity.
Disney Animation and Disney’s Pixar deliver films whose stories typically ripple with enough textured complexity and emotional depth to draw huge swaths of teenagers and adults. But Illumination isn’t trying to break your heart; if its films can hit the funny bone with rapid-fire high jinks, then the younger kids are entertained, which in turn pulls in the parents.
Outside of the “Despicable Me” films, Illumination doesn’t appear to rely on making its lead characters especially memorable; as escapism, it’s the ping-pinging interplay of many entertaining characters that keeps these animated machines humming wonderfully.
Illumination, unlike such studios as Disney/Pixar or Laika, isn’t even trying to push the envelope of animation. Rather, the main aim of the Manhattan-sprung Meledandri — who a decade ago was making his name with Blue Sky/20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age” franchise — is to keep CGI animation costs relatively low, which can mean shorter development times, smaller teams and less investment in animation technology than some other studios. The production budget of each of his Illumination animations is less than $80 million.
Now, beyond this summer’s “Despicable Me 3,” Illumination can look toward “The Secret Life of Pets 2” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for 2018, hoping that cheaper CGI creatures remain a recipe for success.
As long as families keep laughing at its cartoon escapism, Illumination can keep smiling, too — all the way to the bank.