EXCLUSIVE: Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri has hired Ashley Kramer to be EVP of Production and Gail Harrison to oversee Creative Marketing. The move signals expansion plans for the 4-year-old Universal Pictures-based company, whose first release Despicable Me grossed $540 million worldwide. At a time when recent underwhelming results from animation releases like Mars Needs Moms has some second-guessing the animated feature game all the way down to 3D prices, Meledandri is adding executives with the intention of doubling Illumination’s output to two films per year by 2012 or 2013. The company’s next release, the live action/CG mix Hop, will be released by Universal on April 1.
“With Despicable Me behind us, the impending release of Hop, The Lorax in production and a Despicable Me sequel in early stages, it was time to properly scale the company and begin to solidify the team that will lead us as we move forward,” Meledandri told me. “With our output rising from our current schedule of one movie per year, it became imperative that we supplement the staff with additional key executives who can help the company grow. These two new hires are the first of a few key positions we will be filling.”
Meledandri said that Harrison will be helpful in what he sees as a major priority for Illumination: bolstering the efforts of Universal’s marketing team and brand building on each family film release. Part of that is an emphasis on supplying “vast amounts of content generated in the films to exist outside the films themselves.” Meledandri noted that Despicable Me yielded over 15 minutes of extra original content. “Some of it was used for DVD, some for interstitial material that ran on the NBC networks, and some we used in conjunction with our promotional partners,” he said. There will also be a greater emphasis on promotional tie-ins like the one announced this morning by Universal, which tied in Walmart to promote Hop.
As for Kramer’s hire, it signals that Illumination will acquire more projects, but not that many. Meledandri is determined to keep a development ratio of 3.5 projects bought for each one made. “That’s dramatically different from the studio average, and it makes it harder for people submitting projects because we are extremely selective,” Meledandri said. “The good thing is, their chances of a film getting made from something we’re developing is very high.”
Meledandri said when Illumination ups its output, the second film won’t be another 3D CG animated feature. “We can’t make two fully animated films year in and out; we’re not set up to do it and the films are too work-intensive,” he said. “We’ll get to our two pictures per year target from all sources combined. That means one could be stop-motion, a hybrid, or live action that bolsters our steady flow of fully animated films.” Read More »