Claudia Eller examines the secrets of Chris Meladandri's Illumination Entertainment.
... Meledandri's business plan ... 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. ...
Allow me to repeat an old story: When I was but a lad, a grizzled old animation director named Woolfgang Reitherman came into a Disney story room one day and said:
"Guys? We just can't go on this way. This last picture cost seven and a half million dollars. We've got to find a way to make them cheaper."
Seven and a half mill. To make The Rescuers (the first one.) The picture went on to make several bagloads of money, becoming the highest grossing animated film of its time. The Bureau of Labor statistics would have us believe that $7.5 million circa 1977 is equal to $27 million today, except I think that's crap, because the Consumer Price Index is way understated. My guesstimate would be closer to $40 million.
But think for a minute. What mainstream animated film now is being made for $40 million? (There's only one, and its title is Winnie the Pooh, with much of the work sub-contracted.)
The difference in the cost of cartoon-making, then to now, isn't just inflation or a more expensive technology. It's the mushrooming of studio bureaucracies and studio overheads. In 1977, there were two production people working in Disney's animation department, which was around 2% of total staff.
There are production assistants. Production coordinators. Production supervisors. Production managers. I don't walk through a facility anywhere that isn't thick with administrative personnel, all of them busily calling meetings, pushing data around, and building new empires.
But if you go back to the era of Woolie Reitherman, the Chris Meladandri model looks entirely normal. Nobody was making a huge salary then, or feathering his/her professional nest. Nobody was calling endless meetings. The cartoons just got made, haltingly and somewhat inefficiently, and cost $7.5 million.
Maybe I'm delusional, but I would submit that animated features could be made in Southern California for between $65 and $80 million. It would take planning, focus and some creative thinking, but it could be done without stress fractures or broken families.
Because if Woolfgang could do it in 1977, somebody else could do it now.