This is a very loosey-goosey discussion about Illumination Entertainment. At no point will I try to convince you that Illumination is a bad company or that you shouldn’t enjoy their movies.
But I would like to share some thoughts on their business model and why it worries me as someone who’s interested in animated feature films.
So grab some wine, or if you don’t drink, grab some beer, and let’s hop to it.
Ok, so I was in high school by the time Despicable Me came onto the scene.
And with many of Illumination’s later movies, I saw just about none of them right at release, which we can probably blame on the infamous marketing campaign for the Minions standalone movie, which continues to haunt those of us who live here in LA because we have to see a giant Minman when we’re coming down the 101.
By the time Sing was released, I had a good idea of what kind of studio Illumination was.
There’s nothing new about low-budget animated movies for kids. In the early 2000s, Blue Sky was making a lot of these movies, too, and some of them were good.
And just to be clear, when I say low-budget, these movies still cost many millions of dollars.
In fact, a lot of Blue Sky’s CG kids’ movies like Robots and Ice Age cost almost exactly as much as every Illumination Entertainment feature, roughly $75 million.
For reference, Pixar movies usually cost around $175 million.
In a general sense, this illustrates the business model that these smaller animation studios tend to use: spend less on the movie but still get a big wide release and make a bunch of money.
According to what I can find online, Illumination movies tend to make close to as much money as Pixar films.
Now, I’m sure there’s a bigger gap when it comes to physical and streaming sales of these movies, but you get the idea.
Illumination keeps costs relatively low, so it’s no surprise that they just keep doing the same thing.
The total number of Illumination films produced is 10, as well as a bunch of short films.
In other words, they usually do one feature a year, sometimes two. So their turnaround time is pretty close to Pixar’s, too.
From a distance, this sounds like a solid business plan that’s been paying off immensely for almost a decade.
And from a purely business-minded perspective, it is solid. It’s not even that unique in the broader entertainment landscape. Blumhouse has famously focused on making incredibly cheap horror movies and just pumping them out as quickly as possible.
Illumination isn’t as bad as Blumhouse when it comes to quality. I’ll say that. But. I do think Illumination’s method and the stuff they make could have some negative effects on children’s animation and animated films in general.
There’s no way around this one. I … don’t think the Illumination movies are good movies. Whether or not they’re funny is completely subjective, but if we’re talkin’ overall quality, it’s pretty easy to see where they cut corners.
It’s not even really that the movies don’t look professional or contemporary, more just that there’s no attempt to make any aspect especially good, from the writing to the character models to more specific visual aspects like movement and lighting.
And that makes sense given the relatively low budgets we were just talking about. Pushing the boundaries and making everything look and feel fantastic takes money because it takes time and skill and more staff members.
This is also a good time to point out that the dubious quality probably has little or nothing to do with the talent and enthusiasm behind the scenes.
The animators at Illumination are clearly talented. But when you have to crank out as many movies as Pixar, which just happens to be one of the most wealthy and widely-loved animation studios of all time, which itself is a subsidiary of one of the most influential media brands in existence, and you have to do all this with a much smaller budget, then the finished products aren’t going to blow anyone’s mind.
So what’s the problem with manufacturing mediocre to bad entertainment?
Well, it’s not an objective evil or anything, but it’s definitely not helpful, especially for children’s entertainment.
I am of the mind that the media people consume has a significant impact on their lives, especially right now, when increased access to a huge wealth of media has encouraged … indulgence.
And I think cheaping out on entertainment for children because you think they won’t notice or care is kiiiind of disrespectful.
Audiences are starting to demand high-quality entertainment in every medium. It’s very, very important to people, and I think ultimately that demand a good thing.
Well, all the kids growing up right now aren’t gonna keep fighting the good fight if they’re only ever exposed to trash entertainment.
Advocates for good media have all-important tastes that were set by good media.
Kids don’t have a lot of agency in what they watch, especially when they’re very young. The more quality stuff that gets made for kids, the more kids that will start to develop standards for their entertainment.
Treatment of Licensed Material that People Care About
Next up, let’s talk about licensed content and how fragile these adaptations can be.
If a big media property wants a movie adaptation, they don’t have a ton of options when it comes to Hollywood production studios.
Sure, the streaming services are a great option for smaller-tier IPs, but a big brand name with international pull will probably only talk to the handful of studios at the top, especially now that every studio wants its own set of cinematic universes.
So there’s this ever-present risk that one of your favorite IPs will finally get a film adaptation but go to a studio that’s not known for quality work.
I talked about this a bit in my piece on video game movies, but basically, we’ve known for a while that the Mario movie will be produced by Illumination.
It might be a great movie, but I don’t have high hopes. And I’m not even that invested in Mario properties to begin with.
Properties like this that have enormous followings need to be handled delicately. Every successful recent product adaptation (The Lego Movie, the Marvel movies, and Ernest et Celestine, for example) have had some impressive talent behind the scenes.
Ok, so all Illumination needs to do to nail adaptations is hire top-tier writers and creative directors.
Sounds great, except they probably won’t because that can all get very expensive, and as we just talked about, spending more money than they need to, conflicts with that driving principle of theirs.
To sum up, it’s possible that Illumination will get more big-name IPs in the years to come, but is that something we want?
(Highly Theoretical) Treatment of Staff
I can’t put enough disclaimers in front of this section. I’m not accusing anyone of anything here, this is a theoretical worry. It’s something I’m concerned might be part of Illumination’s work culture based on their business model and somewhat similar situations we’ve seen in other industries.
But. It costs any company a metric ton of money to treat employees well. People represent an enormous amount of overhead.
So you have companies willing to treat their staff well because they know that the secret to an effective workplace is [Simpsons clip “happy workers who feel secure in their jobs”], and so they spend all that money on their employees and everything’s great.
But if you’re a company that prioritizes other stuff instead, like maybe profits or maintaining an insane release schedule, then sometimes they might cut costs by treating their staff not so well, and there are tons of hip new ways to do that nowadays, none of which are technically illegal, but technically not illegal is a long ways away from ‘good.’
You can provide really cut-rate benefits for your employees.
You can also hire independent contractors instead of employees and fire them before you legally need to offer them benefits. (This trick is especially popular in the startup community, and I speak from personal experience on that one.)
You can hire a bunch of interns and pay them little to nothing, promising that experience is the most valuable.
You can hire a very small staff that has to work insane hours to meet deadlines.
You can do huge layoffs at the end of the financial year to inflate your profits in reports to shareholders.
You can create a company culture where crazy amounts of overtime are the norm, where employees don’t ask for time off because if no one else is taking time off, they don’t want to look lazy or undedicated in comparison.
I know nothing about what it’s like to work for Illumination. Their office has great reviews online (we’ll talk about those soon) and it might just be a great place to work.
But I do know that when companies try to spend as little as possible in every area, there’s a higher chance that employees are havin’ a bad time.
Given Illumination’s release schedule and their budgets, I’m worried. That’s all, just worried.
The only info I have to go on is employer reviews online. And after watching an Arlo video where he did the exact same thing for Retro Studios, I figured I’d check out the Glassdoor reviews for Illumination.
Here’s the breakdown.
Average rating of 4.5, which is very high.
12 total reviews.
10 of these reviews come from former interns, but in one intern’s own words, interns don’t typically do more than menial labor and occasionally sitting in on meetings. One review is from an executive assistant, and the most negative review comes from a production employee. In other words, from someone who actually works on the movies directly.
With negative company reviews, there’s always a risk that it’s written by someone who just had a bad time there. Doesn’t always mean things are bad in a more general sense, but in this case, the complaints seem legitimate.
Low pay, long hours, including lots of overtime, little opportunity for advancement, high turnover, bad management, and bad work-life balance in general.
Again, it’s just one negative review among several glowing ones, but given what we’ve seen in other industries, especially the video game industry, it’s possible that Illumination is giving their employees a hard time.
And to what end? There’s no evidence of revenue sharing, so artists most likely wouldn’t benefit directly from a solid box-office performance.
And here’s the thing about bad employee treatment. If you’re having a really dark night of the soul, you could say that establishing subpar working conditions is worth creating a great piece of art. I mean, look at all those great directors who were also just really mean on-set. At least we got those great movies, right?
So apart from the fact that it’s never ok to mistreat employees, regardless of the end goal, in the case of Illumination, we’re not even getting good movies out of them.
Again, I’m not implying any kind of wrongdoing, and every workplace has its issues. But I’m curious. I’m curious what it’s like to work there. In fact, if you’ve worked with Illumination and you’d like to tell me about your experiences, feel free to reach out. I’d love to have a chat.
If there’s any animation studio out there that’s pulling in massive revenue while not paying their staff very much and asking that staff to do an incredible amount of work, then I think that studio shouldn’t be supported.
Hopefully there aren’t any animation studios like that. Maybe everyone’s happy. But I think it’s important for us to pay attention and keep an eye out for any funny business.
The End Part
Oh look, it’s another piece that ended up much longer than I wanted it to.
This isn’t a teardown video, in any sense. But I’d love to hear what other folks think of Illumination and their work.
If you live in LA, tell me what it’s like seeing that big ol’ minion off the 101.
Thank you for joining me on this odyssey of … thought and … language.