Daily Variety tells us on today's front page that Chris Meledandri, the longtime head of 20th Century Fox Animation and the man in charge of recent Fox animated hits like Ice Age and Robots, has decamped from Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate to set up a new production unit at Universal Pictures (owned by another conglomerate named General Electric). There he will oversee new animated and live-action pics of the G-rated type, and this should result in another L.A. animation studio. Which is a good thing...
Years ago, I had drinks with Mr. Meledandri at a watering hole near Fox, where he picked my brain about different artists I knew at Fox's then-fresh animation facility in Phoenix. (As I recall, my answers were less than totally brilliant.)
A decade and a half later, I'm the one with questions about Chris Meladandri's new unit that's soon to take shape in Universal City. Like for instance, will it be a full production studio like Disney or DreamWorks? Or will it do pre-production development and ship the production work someplace else?
I'm not sure that Universal or Mr. Meledandri have formulated all the answers yet, and they might not for a while. It's an expensive and daunting task to set up, staff and equip a full-blown animation studio from the ground up, so maybe G.E. would rather purchase an existing facility that's already running. Or maybe the bean-counters at Universal want to recruit a high-powered development staff in Los Angeles, then ship the production work out of the country. (The trouble with this model, of course, is that so far it hasn't worked very well. All the big toon producers have been loath to be the first in the water with a production strategy -- outsourcing high-end animation -- that has thus far shown only mediocre results.)
So. If I were to prioritize my predictions about what Meledandri and Co. may do over the next few months, I would put Universal building a development staff and studio from scratch at #1, Universal building a development staff and purchasing an existing animation studio at #2, and building a development staff and sub-contracting the production work elsewhere at #3.
But there's also a good chance that I'm 180 degrees off on what's actually going to happen. We should never underestimate General Electric's enthusiasm for clinging tightly to every dollar.