Illumination’s Chris Meledandri on ‘Super Mario’s’ Chris Pratt Casting Controversy, Importance of Theatrical Releases


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Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri, the driving force between the “Despicable Me” and “Sing” franchises, was welcomed on stage like a rockstar at Barcelona’s CineEurope event on Monday.

Founded 15 years ago, Universal’s co-owned animation banner Illumination is finally getting ready for the release “Minions: The Rise of Gru” in theaters on July 1. The movie, which just played on opening night at the Annecy festival, had its theatrical roll out delayed by two years due to the pandemic.

Meledandri made exhibitors in the room happy when he said he and Universal honchos never considered skipping theaters with “Minions: The Rise of Gru” or even “Sing 2,” or any other of his movies, to launch it on the studio’s streamer Peacock.

“There was a unified point of view between myself, Donna Langley (Chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group) and Jeff Shell (NBCUniversal Universal’s CEO) that we were going to wait for the moment that audiences were back in the cinema to release this film. None of us realized that it was going to be two years when we made that decision. But I have to say that none of us blinked. And I think it’s demonstrative of Universal’s commitment to audiences seeing movies,” said Meledandri, who was introduced on stage by Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, Universal Pictures International’s distribution president.

Quizzed about the strategies of other studios who opted to launch anticipated movies on their streaming services to grow their subscriber bases during the pandemic, Meledandri said that as the world was in “a period of disruption, there were a lot of decisions made, and they became essentially experiments (…) and when we look back now, we see that perhaps many of those decisions weren’t as good as they looked to be when people were making them.” He said he was that while he was ‘thrilled to be part of building Peacock” it wouldn’t be at the expense of motion pictures and cinemas.”

He acknowledged, however, that the company was “going to have to evolve” because “our world has changed” during the last couple years, and suggested that Illumination would ramp up its output to deliver movies for both theaters and streamers.

“We have a committed strategy to movies as a cinema-going experience, and we can layer other businesses on top of that,” said Meledandri who pointed the company had 1,000 staffers, 800 of whom are working out of its Paris studio.

Meledandri was also asked to comment on Pixar’s move to have a same-sex kiss scene included in “Lightyear” which got the film banned in several parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. On whether Illumination would be willing to include a similar scene in a film at the risk of shutting itself out of some markets, Meledandri gave a cautious answer and said “it’s not been something that has come up on our past films.”

But he continued, “there are topics of conversation right now that are very relevant to what we’re doing in the future that get into areas that potentially might not please everybody.” He said it was a matter of “honoring the stories that you tell, honoring the choices that your filmmakers make.”

Meledandri also chatted about the social media buzz around its untitled “ Super Mario ” movie whose A-list voice cast is led by Chris Pratt playing the titular video game character. A casting choice which has been called out online due to the fact that Pratt isn’t Italian.

“Chris was cast because we felt he could give a great performance as Mario. And now that we’ve done about 15 recording sessions, and the movie is three-quarters done, I sit here and say that I love his performance as Mario,” said Meledandri. He said that considering he had “Italian American heritage, he could make that decision without worrying about offending Italians or Italian Americans.” “I think we’re gonna be just fine. Especially because (Pratt) he’s given such a strong performance.”

The Super Mario Bros. adaptation is due to hit theaters on April 7 in North America, followed by a Japanese release on April 28. The film was initially set to release on Dec. 21 in time for the holiday season.

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