Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit will neither make nor break Megan Ellison or her company, Annapurna Pictures, but the film has special significance. It is the first that Annapurna is distributing on its own — though how that came to be is a curious tale — as part of a bold attempt to transform a company known as a prolific financier-producer of Oscar-bait projects into a full-fledged mini-major. Ellison, 31, has become the first woman with total control of a Hollywood studio and the first to put hundreds of millions of her own money on the line.
Can she make it work? At this point, the challenges facing the business generally and the kind of art house movies that Ellison favors in particular are such that even some who have hit rough patches with her are hoping for the best. “I haven’t always had the best experience with her,” says one top talent rep. “It doesn’t matter. There’s nobody doing what she does in the business. There is no one who takes more risk and is more friendly to talent.”
Hollywood veterans know the odds are heavily stacked against any attempt to launch a distribution company. Recent casualties include Relativity Media and Alchemy (The Lobster). Tang Media Partners is close to a deal to buy Open Road Films (Spotlight), the joint venture between AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group that has racked up a string of box-office losses. Broad Green Pictures, the 3-year-old indie funded by millionaire brothers Gabriel and Daniel Hammond, is shutting down its production division and laying off 15 employees. And the odds may be even more daunting because of Ellison’s penchant for making sophisticated movies that haven’t necessarily been commercial, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master or Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. (She also has backed a few big grossers, including American Hustle and, an unlikely choice, Sausage Party.)
“It’s a tough market,” says one senior industry figure who has dealt with Ellison. “Why would you set up a distribution company in that sector and have to make a whole bunch of movies to cover overhead? It’s not impossible to win, it’s just harder than ever. You’ve got to be better, smarter or luckier than anyone else. I would tell anybody not to do it.”
One veteran executive who has worked with Annapurna says he believes Ellison’s goal is to compete with what Harvey Weinstein was in his heyday, when he popped out such indie hits as Pulp Fiction and The English Patient that stacked up awards like cordwood. But Weinstein is a showman, while Ellison isn’t, and costs have shot up. Industry sources estimate overhead for Annapurna, which has about 120 employees, runs several million dollars a year. Far more burdensome is the cost of marketing the company’s films, which likely will require several hundred million dollars over the next, say, three years.
Annapurna is taking steps to cover costs — for example, it has made output deals for overseas territories with distributors including Entertainment One and MGM — but that hasn’t changed the back-of-the-envelope calculations of industry handicappers. Ellison declined to comment.
Ever since Ellison entered the business in 2011, backed with what is believed to be $2 billion from her father, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, she has shown herself to be strong-willed and sometimes impulsive in ways that would seem to risk relationships with the very auteur filmmakers she has courted assiduously. But thanks to her passion for supporting those filmmakers and her instinct for good material, she has become a high-profile player, even though she is so press-shy, she doesn’t gives interviews. She does allow an occasional article to be written in which she selects some friendly associates to speak about her on the record. (This is not one of them.) Without her acquiescence, no one in her orbit will talk about her publicly, even to pay a compliment.
But many appreciate what she can do and has done. “She’s making movies she wants to do based on what’s in her head,” says an industry veteran who has worked with her. “As far as I can tell, she’s the only one in the whole industry who can do that.” Says another, “She’s the closest thing we have to a Medici at this point.” The question now is whether Ellison has the ability to morph from a well-funded patron of the arts to a well-rounded — by necessity, more disciplined and commercially minded — businesswoman.
Perhaps one measure of Ellison’s ambition, or her wish to signal the seriousness of her intentions, is that Annapurna has put itself into long-shot contention — alongside Sony, Warner Bros., Fox and Universal — to distribute the next James Bond film. She has agreed to finance The Big Short filmmaker Adam McKay’s now-shooting Dick Cheney movie after others passed. She also has moved to stock her pipeline by striking a deal with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. Given that Plan B has made such films as Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave, the company’s sensibility would seem to align perfectly with hers.
Ellison’s plans are not confined to film: She has hired former HBO president of entertainment Sue Naegle to build a television division that plans series from such talents as the Coen brothers and David O. Russell. She attached Julia Roberts to star in a limited series adaptation of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel Today Will Be Different for HBO. And late last year, she established Annapurna Interactive, which lured top Sony designers and has released two well-received games: What Remains of Edith Finch from Giant Sparrow and Gorogoa from Jason Roberts. There are plans to release 19 more in 2018.
Ellison has moved her company out of large houses in L.A.’s Bird Streets neighborhood that she had bought for $32.6 million in 2011 and later sold for a combined $46.7 million. Annapurna now occupies another group of properties in West Hollywood that Ellison acquired for $40 million, giving her 28,000 square feet on a 35,000-square-foot lot that once housed a studio for silent film actress and producer Norma Talmadge.
As Ellison has tripled the size of Annapurna’s staff, one of her top executives says she works to foster an esprit de corps. There is free lunch for everyone every day. Ellison, who interviews each prospective hire, hosts an all-company town hall every other week, during which she updates staff on projects and plans. The company has “Annapurna Friday,” the last week of the month; the staff puts in a half-day, followed by a party or barbecue.
While Ellison is said to be a constant presence in the office, outsiders find her far harder to reach. “She’s notorious for not returning phone calls, but that doesn’t make her good or bad,” says one talent rep. Apparently, she is at least democratic in that trait: In 2014, thanks to the Sony hack, the public could read producer Scott Rudin’s email expressing resentment at being asked to court Ellison to finance his planned Steve Jobs movie — in which he called Ellison a “bipolar 28 year old lunatic who hasn’t returned your call in 3 days.” (Given Rudin’s infamous phone habits — well, pot, meet kettle.) Ellison responded with a tweet: “Bipolar 28 year old lunatic..? I always thought of myself more as eccentric.”
Certainly, Ellison seems to some in the industry to be mercurial. Annapurna packaged Alexander Payne’s Downsizing with Matt Damon, and in the summer of 2015, according to a source, offered to partner with Paramount on it. Then Ellison went silent. “It was the craziest feeling,” says a source involved with the deal. “They said they’d put up a third of the money. Brad Grey [the late chairman of Paramount] committed to make the movie, and then Ellison pulled out without explanation, refusing to finance her own package. And she ducked Brad’s phone calls for weeks. She never returned his calls to explain why.” Paramount wound up taking on the full budget of nearly $70 million; Downsizing is now set to kick off the Venice Film Festival and has early Oscar buzz.
That was not the only time that Ellison offered and then withdrew support. She pulled $23 million in funding for Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 drama Side Effects just 12 weeks before shooting was to begin, reportedly because she was unhappy with Blake Lively’s salary demands. (Lively didn’t appear in the film, which went forward without Ellison’s backing.) Ellison did not deliver the news to Soderbergh herself, prompting the director to take a shot at her in Vanity Fair. “In my experience, when you’re breaking up with someone, it’s proper form to call them,” he said. Another producer says she had committed millions to one of his projects but did not come through. “I couldn’t tell if she was just making promises to make herself relevant,” he says. That film ultimately was made elsewhere and met with great success.
Last year, Annapurna sold a still-untitled Anderson movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis to Universal’s Focus Features for about $35 million. Why Ellison would sell off a film from Anderson after she aggressively outbid Fox Searchlight for The Master and backed the director’s every wish is not clear.
It’s hard to say whether Ellison has withdrawn from what would seem like signature projects on impulse or on principle. One executive who has sat across the table from her says he believes that having lost money on such films as Spike Jonze’s Her and Russell’s Joy, she was “very unhappy with how she ended up financially.” A talent rep who has done business with Ellison contends that the story of her unquestioning largesse has been exaggerated. “She is not a patron; she’s an investor,” he says. “Every one of these [projects], even for Megan, is numbers-crunching.”
Money seemed to be an issue with Bigelow’s Detroit. Annapurna put the film together and offered it to such buyers as Fox Searchlight and Focus. Searchlight offered to partner on the project, but Ellison at that point declined to invest any money in it. When neither studio agreed to buy the $40 million-plus project, she wound up financing the entire film herself.
In some ways, Detroit is just what one would expect from Annapurna: It has a top rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is a film that is impossible to imagine any big studio making — certainly at that price tag. The subject matter is tough, it has no major stars and its overseas prospects are limited.
Some industry observers question the decision to open Detroit, an obvious awards play, in early August. Sources say the decision was based on the fact that several films with appeal to African-Americans, including Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Straight Outta Compton and The Help, opened around the same time and went on to box-office success. The release also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, which Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal and Ellison took advantage of by hosting a premiere in that city.
The plan to release Detroit on more than 2,800 screens on Aug. 4 was tweaked late in the game when tracking looked soft. Annapurna opened it a week earlier, hoping to boost word-of-mouth, on 20 screens in various markets. It pulled in a decent $17,500 per screen, but it remains to be seen whether the box office will ultimately support the budget plus marketing cost.
Like her brother, David, who also is involved in film financing through his Skydance Media, Ellison attended USC but did not graduate. When the siblings started to invest in Hollywood, both were guided by attorney Skip Brittenham, one of the industry’s most respected advisers and a confidant of their father. But Megan Ellison and Brittenham parted ways about three years ago, and sources say it was because of her unwillingness to heed his advice.
Industry handicappers say one strong point in Annapurna’s favor now is that Ellison has hired a seasoned team, including former Fox domestic marketing chief Marc Weinstock to oversee movie development and production, Sony Pictures veteran David Kaminow for marketing and Erik Lomis from The Weinstein Co. to run distribution. All were lured with above-market pay packages, according to sources.
But given her resources, one producer who knows her says she doesn’t need to fixate on profit: “If she spends $600 million and breaks even, she’s doing fine.” A film investor who also knows Ellison agrees. “She’s decided,” he says, “that she wants to be a studio. I don’t care if she has five bombs in a row. If she wants to keep going, she’ll keep going.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.