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Five Secrets of PGA Nom 'Despicable Me's' $542 Million Success

Despicable Me
Universal Pictures

What made Despicable Me an unexpected $542 million success and earned Chris Meledandri a PGA nomination? The fact that it was unexpected, says  Meledandri, who shared today's nom with John Cohen and Janet Healy.

"I think the reaction was driven by a pleasant surprise because people didn't see the film coming," says Meledandri, whose Illumination Entertainment animation unit warmed (and jump-started) partner Universal's box-office heart this year with the film, principally voiced by Steve Carell as a supervillain besotted by orphans and beset by beanlike little yellow Minions. "It was an original story. When you release a sequel, you limit the risks when you're trying to tell the world about the movie. We were coming out of nowhere. Nobody knew what we were, and we got the benefit of the surprise of something unexpected and truly original. We weren't coming out of a tradition of making a certain kind of movie." The only insta-tradition of the new Illumination/Universal unit was thrift: Despicable Me cost $70 million, maybe half or even a third what a Disney/Pixar film would. 

"There was no expectation. So the discovery of the film was all the more impactful for an audience."

Meledandri warns that his success signifies sequelitis is backfiring bigtime. "I think we're sort of trapped in a period where maybe economic insecurity has bred an overdependence on rooting films in either underlying well known properties or just making sequels. Sometimes what feels like a safer route -- sometimes that's a deception that it really is a safer route."

Meledandri, the least megalomaniacal of moguls, at first feared Despicable's originality was unsafe. "It was making me nervous because I was thinking gosh, nobody's heard of a Minion or Gru [the supervillain hero], and I did a count of how many of the major studio releases were based on something else versus wholly original: like 27 based on something else and seven originals. Ironically, I think we ended up being rewarded for that, not just within the industry and the press but also with the audience. Audiences love that sense of discovery. Not to say that I don't like sequels, but some of my most memorable experiences throughout life in a movie theater happened when I see something that I just didn't expect. I'm transported to a new fresh place."

So Meledandri's swearing off sequels, right? "No, I think it's a balance. Our next film is an original film and the next  after that is based on underlying material that I love, going back to Dr. Seuss [The Lorax]. But I think anytime the pendulum swings too far in one direction, fortunately for all of us filmgoers, you historically see a correction. I think that it's reached that level where it swung too far."

Meledandri gives four more reasons for his half-billion bonanza debut:

* Universal's cohesion. "One of the things I learned at Fox is that the ability to penetrate the culture depends on martialing the forces of your sister companies. You get promotion that's very, very hard to buy." Universal's theme parks and other divisions rallied "selflessly" -- partly because Meledandri dealt them in. "We showed the movie to them early, saying, look, this is what we're asking you to support." It was raw, unfinished work. "We're picking transparency, which makes you nervous for sure."

* Irresistible Minions. The tiny amusing units were much easier to market than the overall idea of the new, non-sequel film. "The Minions are irresistible across all ages and cultures. They provided little pieces of content that made people say, 'I Still don't know what this is, but I know I like what I'm seeing.'"

* Resisting sexual equality in the orphan trio. "Those three little girls connected, even if you're not a little girl, with adults, with boys." He resisted the conventional marketing temptation to say, "Why aren't there two boys and a girl?"

* Heeding Steve Carell. "I resisted the conventional wisdom that says, 'Let's make Gru just sweet.' Steve said, 'Oh, I feel I'm getting softened, don't drain the bite out of this character. Chris, don't give in. If I don't have a place to grow from, I can't do it.' I caught myself."

He notes the overperformance of the domestic, then international box office, now the DVD release, capped by the PGA nom, but instead of gloating insufferably over his triumph and claiming he knew it all along (as I would do in his shoes), Meledandri says, "The success of any film surprises me because I think lower my expectations as a means of protecting myself against disappointment."