Today is September 12 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “have you learned failure will not slay you?” While navigating the chaos of life Christopher Meledandri had to learn firsthand how failure would not slay him. Meledandri’s journey involves the creation of one of today’s most beloved animated characters – the Minions.
Christopher Meledandri was born in New York City in 1959. His parents adopted a child-rearing technique popular during the 1960s where parents treated their children ke adults. As a result of this parenting approach, Meledandri never saw any cartoons or animated movies.
Instead, his early film experiences came courtesy of Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, rather than Walt Disney. According to Meledandri, “the films that I was exposed to were the films my parents were interested in seeing as opposed to anything remotely resembling a film that was appropriate for children.”
Meledandri graduated with a BA in English from Dartmouth College in 1982 where he studied with David Thomson, the eminent British film critic and historian. “He really cemented my love of cinema and a desire to make that my life’s work.”
Tragically, a month before graduating college his father died of a heart attack. Meledandri had to attend to his father’s affairs and phase out his business. One of his father’s friends, Dan Melnick, was a producer who had made films such as All That Jazz and Straw Dogs. He offered Meledandri a job as a gofer.
Far from glamorous, his responsibilities included taking the dog to the vet, to shopping for Christmas gifts, to being a courier for 35mm film canisters so that Melnick could screen movies at his house.” Yet the experience he gained was invaluable. Meledandri learned to adapt and opened himself up to learning as much as possible through the experience that so many others might have turned down or rejected since it was too mundane.
According to Meledandri he “gained access and exposure to virtually every aspect of producing a film, from the earliest conversations about ideas, to script development, to scheduling and budgeting, to marketing.” Although he had experience in New York City, working in Hollywood required him to adapt. According to Meledandri,“I was coming from New York City so I thought I was pretty savvy but I found it quite intimidating, actually as I went from having studied Billy Wilder films in school to seeing Billy Wilder have lunch with my boss.” Over time he acquired more responsibility in the development of new film projects.
Meledandri eventually worked on a major studio project entitled Titan A.E. that lost $100 million and almost cost him his job. “It was one of the hardest periods of my adult life.” The film’s collapse taught him a valuable lesson. “Prior to Titan I went through life believing that a major professional failure would destroy me. I learned that while it came close to destroying me, I survived it and I no longer had that conviction that failure would slay me.”
Meledandri recalls he was persona non grata on the Fox lot in the immediate aftermath of the failure of Titan A.E. But one person who stuck with him was Peter Chernin, the head of Fox’s entertainment division at the time, who opted to give the executive a second chance. “Failures can be unbelievably valuable opportunities, with the proviso that the person has to be introspective and thoughtful enough to learn from them,” says Chernin. Meledandri would eventually go on to launch a successful animation company Illumination Studios with Universal Pictures.
Meledandri produces the movies while Universal finances and distributes all the films. Illumination has produced 10 feature films, with its latest release being The Secret Life of Pets 2, with an average gross of $695.4 million per film. The studio's highest-grossing films are Minions, which has grossed $1.159 billion worldwide, Despicable Me 3, $1.034 billion and Despicable Me 2, $970.8 million. All three are among the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, and six of their films are among the 50 highest-grossing animated films.
In one of life’s great ironies the man who was never allowed to see children’s movies grew up to become a leading producer of them. Along the way he learned that failure would not slay him.