‘Despicable Me’ turns Universal into a digital animation film player

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, has racked up $118.4 million in 10 days at the box office, granting Universal something that has long eluded it: a family-friendly animated blockbuster.

Universal Pictures executive: An article in Tuesday’s Business section about Universal Pictures and its animated hit “Despicable Me” referred to Adam Fogelson as co-chairman. He is chairman. —

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 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,” said Universal Pictures Co-Chairman Adam Fogelson.

Universal, which over the years had been steadily profitable, needs a game changer given its track record of the last 15 months, including 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, multiyear 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 other major digitally animated films, in part because Illumination saves money by working with first-time directors and teaming experienced artists with younger, less costly talent.

Meledandri has taken much of what he learned at Fox — including the binding rule to get “a unified, clear view of what the story is” before starting production — and applied it at Universal. He learned that the hard way when the budget of Fox’s animated film “Titan A.E.” ballooned during production — and whose box office failure in 2000 nearly cost him his job after the studio “wrote down $100 million of Rupert Murdoch’s money,” Meledandri said.

He also learned to listen to actors, a compromise not always made by Hollywood producers.

Steve Carell, who voiced the villain Gru in “Despicable Me,” recalled that at one point in production Meledandri became concerned that Gru’s villainy became obvious too early in the film and it would turn off audiences. He instructed directors to tone down the scenes. When Meledandri showed the sequences to Carell, the actor balked. Carell argued that unless Gru displayed a sharp edge when audiences were introduced to the character, it would diminish the emotional impact they would later feel in the story when Gru’s heart is melted by the affections of a trio of young orphan girls he adopts.

“There was a move toward softening the character and making him less despicable, more palatable and cuter,” Carell said. “I spoke up, and Chris was incredibly responsive.”

The team wrote edgier scenes, including those showing Gru delighting in popping a little boy’s balloon and freezing customers in Starbucks with a ray gun.

Meledandri also won the trust of another key ally, Audrey Geisel, the widow of Dr. Seuss creator Theodor Geisel.

The protective gatekeeper of her late husband’s literary works and legacy agreed to let Meledandri option the movie rights to “Horton,” and more recently to “The Lorax,” the story of a greedy entrepreneur who strips the forest of trees to manufacture clothes that Illumination is developing as a 3-D animated feature.

“I bonded with him almost immediately,” Geisel recalled of her first meeting with Meledandri in the “cat room” of her La Jolla home, where he convinced her he would stay true to the underlying material. “He was so approachable and down to earth without any of the affectations that sometimes I find with people in the industry,” she said.