How David Ellison, Son of Larry Ellison, Scored Big With 'True Grit'
The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands now. Subscribers can read the magazine here.
The premiere of Flyboys was a big night for David Ellison. It was September 2006, and at just 23, he was making his feature-film debut, playing a pilot in a cast headed by James Franco. Acting was Ellison's ambition, and as he is a skilled stunt flier, the story about heroic young daredevils was close to his heart. When he told an interviewer on the red carpet, "To be a part of a movie like this ... is just a dream come true," his sincerity was evident. But Ellison's dream met cold reality when Flyboys flopped hard. The movie grossed less than $18 million and never recouped its $65 million budget -- all of which, a source says, came from Ellison family coffers.
In December, Ellison, now all of 28, walked the red carpet again, this time at the premiere of True Grit -- and this time in the role of executive producer, having co-financed the $38 million movie with Paramount. Talk about dreams coming true: The film has soared past $193 million worldwide and Hoovered up 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture. True Grit's performance has shocked everyone, and Ellison has launched his producing career in a bigger way than anyone could have imagined.
Certainly no one in Hollywood would mistake Ellison's decision, late in the process, to help finance a small movie by auteur directors for proof of producing prowess. But lucking into a critical and commercial hit doesn't hurt, and no doubt the industry hopes that success will encourage him to stay in the game. For many years, those in the business have regarded moneyed newcomers as lambs to be fleeced. The fate has befallen many contenders, including the German company Intertainment, which financed films like the 2000 John Travolta bomb Battlefield Earth. But times have changed, and financing is so hard to come by that at this point, a wealthy young man like Ellison may be regarded as a resource to be conserved for as long as possible. More important, his wealth and connections assure that he is well guarded.
Just a few years ago, Ellison looked like a prime candidate to be played. Those who knew nothing else about him knew he was the son of Oracle co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison, who has a reported net worth of $27 billion. And they knew that David, still a senior in college, had co-financed Flyboys with his father. Whenever a rich newcomer puts money into a bomb, the sharks start to circle. The fact that this newcomer was a young man who wanted to act would only make the sharks swim faster.
Since then, Ellison has made great strides toward being taken seriously. He's managed to raise $350 million in financing and has reached a deal to partner on certain movies with Paramount. He also not only has his father's money behind him but also, according to a source, Dad has established him as a billionaire in his own right. And those who have met with David say they find him smart, polite, earnest and disciplined - though for some a bit too eager to appear knowing. Industry veterans say he reads scripts and does his homework. "You know how these guys blow into town, and the first thing they tell you is how rich they are and how they're going to whip the business into shape?" says a producer who's met with Ellison. "He's not like that."
A leading agent concurs that Ellison is "driven and disciplined." Speaking of Ellison's 4-year-old Skydance Productions, he says, "David is trying to build a studio-financing engine like Legendary that is a long-term business and is sustainable." (Legendary, founded by moneyman Thomas Tull, has a massive deal with Warners and has partnered on hits including Inception and The Hangover.)
Even if Ellison were inclined to be profligate, he appears to be operating within certain constraints. A source says he still needs approval from a Skydance executive committee before investing in any film. The company does not disclose who sits on that committee, but Ellison has been well tutored. His father has connected David with an enviable set of advisers, including Steve Jobs and David Geffen. (Geffen and Larry Ellison once co-owned the 450-foot yacht Rising Sun, which reportedly cost $200 million to build, but the relationship between the two men has cooled. Geffen has bought out Ellison and is not associated with Skydance.) David is also represented by ultimate deal lawyer Skip Brittenham, who put together the deal that led to Ellison's involvement with True Grit.
One producer who has seen Ellison in action suspects that Geffen, who has long proclaimed his skepticism about making money in the movie business and only reluctantly became involved in what proved a trying exercise with DreamWorks, must have reinforced the message that Hollywood has to be approached with trepidation: "David wants to help the kid, to make sure he doesn't get taken. Between Paramount's conservatism and Geffen's conservatism and wanting to show his father that he's doing it on his own, he's cautious."
Which is just as well because in the movie business, millions of dollars can disappear quickly. Not that there isn't plenty more where that came from. Larry Ellison rose from humble origins to become the third-richest man in America. He has not only invested in David's company -- Skydance's money includes $150 million in equity, an undisclosed portion of which came from the elder Ellison - but he also bought a Cape Cod-style house on Carbon Beach in Malibu that cost more than $20 million -- before the renovations -- where his son now resides (part of a property-acquisition spree in Malibu during the past seven years in which Larry has laid out more than a half-billion dollars).