What do you get when you pair a latchkey terrier mutt with a hucksterish koala trying to put on a show? A double-blockbuster year for Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind 2016’s The Secret Life of Pets (which grossed more than $875 million worldwide) and Sing ($360 million in its first three weeks), as well as the Despicable Me franchise. Its hits, each produced for about half the average film budget of rival Disney-Pixar, confirm Illumination’s status as an entertainment company for the digital age, where interstitial ads and smartphone games have to be as compelling as the movies themselves.
“Nothing we do is ancillary,” says founder and CEO Chris Meledandri. “Every interaction the audience has with our characters is equally important to us.”
Thanks to a dedicated creative unit that functions as an internal ad agency, 20% of the material Illumination creates is simply in support of its movies—some appearing in increments as short as five seconds long. They’re helped by Illumination’s characters, which communicate in a universal visual language, care of the studio’s diverse group of international artists. And in a rare move, Illumination retains control over licensing deals and partnerships, working to create original stories for projects such as the Minion Rush mobile game (which has 750 million users) and the Minion Mayhem rides currently at a handful of Universal Studios theme parks (Universal co-owns the Illumination brand with Meledandri). It’s part of Meledandri’s ongoing quest to “inspire the same sense of wonder in all forms.”