How David Ellison, Son of Larry Ellison, Scored Big With 'True Grit'

 Kim Kulish/Corbis

What exactly inspired Ellison to make the film is unclear (he declined to answer questions for this article). But a source involved with Flyboys, a tale of young pilots who trained in France before the U.S. got involved in World War I, says it came about simply because "David wanted to fly in a movie" -- apparently enough to invest $32.5 million himself and persuade his father to match. David said afterward that he "fell in love with acting" while making the movie and that a career in front of the camera was his main objective.

Despite the fact that the money came from the Ellison family, director Tony Bill says he considered David for the role "the way you audition everybody -- a reading, a video, getting to know him a little bit." His conclusion: Ellison was "exactly right" to play cocky Eddie Beagle. The fact that Ellison money was co-financing Flyboys, he says, had nothing to do with that decision.

But Bill knew who Ellison was because a couple of years earlier, David had called him while looking for hangar space at Santa Monica Municipal Airport. "He's an extraordinarily lovely young man," Bill says. "The only word I can think of is 'wise.' To be temperate and wise is unusual in somebody so young. He also has extraordinarily good manners, which is rare in anyone these days."

During a few months on location outside London, Bill says, Ellison's heir-to-a-fortune status remained unknown to almost everyone on the set. Ellison was "one step before painfully shy" but got along with everyone. "The actors all loved him for who he is, totally," Bill says. "Which may be the last time in his life that happens."

After Flyboys flopped -- panned by critics as cliched and predictable -- David still clung to his thespian dreams. Acting and developing scripts seem to have occupied him for the past couple of years and caused him grief as recently as last year. He co-wrote Northern Lights, a screenplay set in the world of aerobatics, and offered to pay Taylor Lautner $7.5 million to star in the film, but it was reported that Lautner dropped out because of the sizable role Ellison intended to play in the film. (In fairness, Lautner had so many competing and increasingly lucrative offers that his decision may not have been influenced solely by the prospect of sharing the screen with Ellison.)

Ellison also appeared last year as an assistant to a corrupt mayor in an episode of the TNT show Leverage and had a role in a very small film called Little Fish, Strange Pond, which played some festivals and was released on DVD in December. Although he's primarily positioning himself as a producer, his interest seems to linger: Sources say that in making his deal at Paramount, he tried to ensure that he would act in some movies and that he had a particular interest in the possible Top Gun remake. (A studio insider says no such provision was ever discussed.)

Ellison's life as a producer started to take serious shape in August, when he succeeded in pulling together his financing. Ellison agreed to come into True Grit with some understandable hesitation, but an associate says once he read the script, he invested enthusiastically. The same source says Ellison has been actively involved in M:I-4, paying multiple set visits and reviewing script changes.

There could hardly be a more vivid illustration of the vagaries of the business than the unlikely success of True Grit, which has entered the record books as the second-highest-grossing Western behind Dances With Wolves. If Paramount had any notion of taking advantage of its young partner on a money-losing film, clearly the strategy backfired. By cutting him in on the project, "they gave away a lot of money," says a producer not associated with the film. "Who knew?"

Ellison remains an avid flier and has recently acquired a helicopter, but at this point, he's ready to move out of his offices at Santa Monica Airport -- they may not quite convey his seriousness of purpose. "You look out the back of the office, and you see a sports car and a private plane," says one who has visited. "It's like a mini version of Tom Cruise, in terms of the setup." As it happens, Ellison requested Cruise's old offices on the Paramount lot, but after some haggling, the studio offered him less expansive quarters. One observer says Ellison asked to move onto the lot "so he doesn't look like a flyboy dilettante." The snark in that comment is unmistakable, and certainly some in the industry - while they might outwardly court Ellison's favor -- resent his easy entree into the business.

Others are hopeful that he will remain focused and succeed. "He's getting a head of steam," says an executive at a company that provides financing on big studio films. This observer believes Ellison is one of several proving that outsiders can avoid getting fleeced in Hollywood. Based on the success of companies like Legendary, "people are seeing that these companies can, in a sober-minded way, go about doing their business," he says.

Whether success as a producer will satisfy a wealthy young man with a taste for 360-degree rolls in the sky remains to be seen. Back in 1997, when David was still a teenager, author Wilson asked Larry Ellison whether he was worried about the impact of all that money on his son. How can you teach him values, the writer asked, if everything is available to him?

"Everything isn't available," the elder Ellison said. "Money is available, and that's nice. But ... David is going to have to create something that will make him feel good." 

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