Once Played, Now a Player
Just a few years ago, David Ellison looked like a prime candidate to be fleeced. But after helping to finance “True Grit,” the young son of Oracle’s co-founder is being taken seriously in Hollywood.
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).
In 2009, Skydance reached a four-year co-financing, production and distribution agreement with Paramount. Studio sources indicate it is limited in scope, committing Ellison to co-finance the next Mission: Impossible as well as the Jack Ryan reboot and possible Top Gun remake (assuming the latter two fall within certain budget parameters). But sources say it is up to Paramount whether to offer Ellison a role in financing its other projects.
“We’ve had a great start to our relationship with Skydance and are deeply proud of how well True Grit has performed,” says Adam Goodman, president of the Paramount Film Group. “David is building a quality company with smart people, and we look forward to a mutually beneficial working relationship for years to come.”
Skydance has also agreed to partner on My Mother’s Curse, a comedy pairing Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, and is planning to make four to six movies a year, including some moderately budgeted projects.
So with abundant backing from his father, Ellison is determined to prove he can make it on his own.
Thanks to Larry, David started flying planes when he was 13.
David’s parents divorced when he was 3, and his father wasn’t greatly involved when he was growing up. But flying was something the two could share. In Mike Wilson’s book The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison, Jobs says the elder Ellison decided that flying would teach his son responsibility. Larry Ellison is quoted as saying that his son derived so much confidence from flying that he sometimes found himself thinking, “That’s enough self-esteem for one day.”
Those who know David Ellison say that if he has turned out to be a polite, disciplined young man, his mother, Barb, deserves a lot of credit. One of four women who have been married to and divorced from Larry Ellison, she raised David and his sister, Megan, also now financing movies, on a horse farm in the Northern California community of Woodside — one of the wealthiest small towns in the country. In 2006, David told the San Francisco Chronicle that his mother kept him grounded, keeping him on an allowance of $5 a week, assigning him chores. Larry’s lifestyle created challenges for Barb: Once, when Larry wanted to fly with David to Seattle to test out a flight simulator at Boeing, Barb said no because David hadn’t finished his homework. Instilling a sense of humility in her son was difficult enough just living in moneyed Woodside, she told Wilson, and Larry was in the stratosphere even by local standards.
Barb wasn’t thrilled when David, as a teenager, took up a new sport: aerobatics. Once again, she had Larry to thank. “David had an airplane that his father didn’t like,” says his aerobatics instructor, Wayne Handley. “His father didn’t have a lot of confidence in it.” This dubious aircraft, as Handley recalls, was a Lancair “home-built” plane named Dreamcatcher — a tiny white aircraft with turquoise and purple stripes and, according to Handley, a woman painted on the underbelly. “To pry this airplane out of David’s hands, Larry bought him a top-of-the-line aerobatic airplane out of Germany, the Extra 300,” Handley says. The stunt plane can roll 360 degrees in less than a second.
David met Handley through his father, who had backed the pilot in building what was dubbed the Oracle Turbo Raven. The unique plane could perform astonishing stunts, at least before a crash in 1999. (“I broke it and broke my butt,” Handley says.) After Handley was sidelined by injuries, an aerobatic flier named Sean Tucker was blessed with Oracle’s sponsorship, and, in 2003, he invited David, then 20, to perform with the Stars of Tomorrow aerobatic team at the country’s largest gathering of aviation enthusiasts, which takes place each summer in Oshkosh, Wis. David’s best friend, Nick Nilmeyer, was also on the team, and the two made up stunt moves called the Nick-o-lator and the Dave-o-lator.
Did people in the flying community think young Ellison got that invitation because he was his father’s son? “Yes,” Handley says bluntly. “But he justified it all. He did a great job. David pulled off a flight at Oshkosh that really impressed everybody.” But the danger of flying was brought home forcefully in 2006, when Nilmeyer was killed in a crash during a routine flight. For Ellison, the loss was agony. “They were so much fun together,” Handley says. “They were a delight to be around.” Ellison had himself tattooed with Nilmeyer’s flying logo, and he has periodically written on a Facebook page dedicated to his friend’s memory. In September 2008: “Nick, we just had a killer party down in the bu for labor day. You were badly missed. I love you brother.”
But even before Nilmeyer’s crash, Handley says Ellison was no daredevil. “Everything he did in aerobatics was well disciplined,” he says. Like those who have met Ellison in Hollywood, Handley says his former student’s determination is one of his striking traits. “He wants to succeed,” Handley says. “He really wants to prove to the world that he is his own man.”
At first it appeared David would try to emulate Larry. After finishing high school, he enrolled in Pepperdine University, planning to major in business. But he disliked the subject matter and transferred to USC, where he focused on film and television production. During his senior year, he took what has turned out to be a protracted detour when he got the role in Flyboys. (USC says David is “an ungraduated alum,” but he says he intends to earn his degree.)
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 clichéd 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.”