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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The urge to challenge tradition ran in Chris Meledandri‘s blood long before he upended the studio animation business by proving that you can make a global blockbuster for half the money that Disney and Pixar spend on their family tentpoles. This year, Illumination achieved the greatest feat of its six-year history with Despicable Me 2, returning to the world of reformed criminal mastermind Gru (Steve Carell) and his adorable — and easily merchandised — Minion army. Costing a mere $75 million to produce, thanks to lean management and a shorter development cycle, the sequel has grossed $918.6 million globally for Illumination and partner Universal, making it the second-highest-grossing film of the year so far after Disney’s Iron Man 3 ($1.2 billion) and the fourth-biggest animated film of all time, not accounting for inflation. (This also doesn’t take into account the multimillion-dollar Minion merchandising bonanza.) Next up for Illumination: The Minions spinoff, which is set to hit theaters July 10, 2015.
Meledandri, 54, who established 20th Century Fox as a key animation player before launching Illumination in partnership with Universal in 2007, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and credits his parents for his determination and spirit. His father, who died in 1980, was a noted men’s fashion designer. “Both my parents were disrupters in their own way. In the 1960s, my father chose to introduce Italian-style clothing into a world that was filled with boxy Brooks Brothers suits. So if you were dressing in his clothes in New York or California, you were breaking a rule,” Meledandri says. “And my mother, Risha, who is still living, has always been an activist. I don’t think my mom has met a cause she doesn’t like. I was pulled out of school for every moratorium day and every rally for a left-wing candidate … from Ed Koch in his heyday to Eugene McCarthy. That’s the culture that I came from.” As for filmmaking culture, “If you are not breaking rules and you are not taking risks,” he says, “you are not going to end up with movies where there is discovery … and, to me, that is the magic of going into the cinema.”
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