On Feb. 8, one of the hottest film projects to hit the town in months began circulating. From directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The Last Human, which centers on a 12-year-old girl who survives the robot apocalypse, promised to be that elusive marriage of smart and commercial (like the duo’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Predictably, nearly every studio was chasing the film, including TriStar, Netflix, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, New Regency and MRC. So, too, was Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, teaming up with MGM on a competitive offer.
Ultimately, TriStar won the bidding war three days later. But Annapurna’s involvement signaled something perhaps more important. Despite pervasive rumors that Ellison is winding down the company’s operations and would not greenlight a film for at least a year, Annapurna was telegraphing that it’s here to stay — though perhaps pivoting to a more scaled-back and, its executives say, economically sensible business model.
“We were as aggressive as we could be. It just didn’t go our way,” says Annapurna chief content officer Sue Naegle, who spearheaded the studio’s efforts on the Lord and Miller film with Ellison. “It points to the sorts of movies we’re going to look to make in the future.”
The fact that Annapurna will be making movies at all may come as welcome news to anyone who longs for a diverse theatrical ecosystem — as opposed to one increasingly dependent on branded tentpoles. After all, speculation was rampant in recent months that Ellison’s company had lost so much money, it would soon close shop. In addition to Annapurna’s recent string of soft box office performers, including The Sisters Brothers and Destroyer, the company scrapped two high-profile previously greenlit films: Jay Roach’s untitled Roger Ailes drama and Jennifer Lopez’s The Hustlers at Scores. This was in tandem with the departures of two high-level executives, domestic marketing president Marc Weinstock and film chief Chelsea Barnard, and the announcement of a new joint distribution venture with MGM that some saw as Ellison relinquishing power. The death watch had begun.
There were reports that Ellison had gone MIA and that her father, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, was curbing his daughter’s spending. “Oracle billionaire taking financial reins at daughter’s struggling film company,” declared the New York Post headline. Some outlets even suggested that her brother, David Ellison, who runs Skydance Media (the Mission: Impossible franchise), was coming in to right the ship.
The buzz around Annapurna always centers on Megan Ellison. As one of only four people ever to receive two best picture nominations in the same year (2014 — for Her and American Hustle), she is one of the most nominated female producers in Oscar history, with Annapurna nabbing 52 nominations over the past eight years. But to many, the press-averse studio chief is an enigma, a 33-year-old billionaire who has chosen to spend her inheritance on movies (father Larry reportedly gave Megan and David at least $1 billion each when they were in their 20s).
Those who work with her describe Ellison as down-to-earth, albeit quirky, often bringing her orange cat, Cody, into Annapurna’s pet-friendly West Hollywood offices. She drives a Land Rover Defender, the British four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle, and picked out every piece of furniture and artwork in Annapurna’s offices, including a Warhol in one of the bathrooms. “Who gets to pee next to a Warhol?” jokes one staffer. She has a wicked sense of humor, with a quick wit, and often sits in the lunch area and drops in on conversations. Director Spike Jonze is one of her best friends.
Despite the aforementioned chaos, Annapurna hasn’t laid anyone off, retaining its staff of 80 spanning film, TV and theater. An additional 80 have moved over to United Artists Releasing, the joint venture that Annapurna recently launched with MGM. Annapurna has at least a 50 percent stake; nevertheless, to many in the community the recent deal signaled that Ellison was ceding control of her nascent distribution outfit. Under the new structure, she will be a board member of UAR, but what role she’ll play in the new entity is still very much unclear. On April 12, UAR will face its first test with Missing Link, an animated kids film from Travis Knight’s Laika Entertainment.
Those with inside knowledge dispute the rumors that Ellison has checked out. “She’s in the office every day,” says one staff member. They assert that Ellison has actually been taking a more hands-on approach of late, with a new mandate to produce, finance and distribute three to five films per year with the Annapurna label. Other projects, like MGM crown jewel Bond 25, will be released by UAR. (Although sources say she will take a back seat to MGM on the new UAR venture, Ellison did assemble the marketing and distribution team that includes president of marketing David Kaminow and president of distribution Erik Lomis, which scored a $203 million worldwide box office hit with Creed II.)
Few studio heads not accused of harassment or in the midst of an active bankruptcy face the same scrutiny as Ellison, especially since she decided to expand her producing and financing company into a full-fledged distributor two years ago. That business requires exponentially more overhead than producer-financiers, and casualties abound, from Relativity to Broad Green (also created by billionaires with highbrow taste) to Open Road (the company behind best picture winner Spotlight). Even before accusations of sexual misdeeds, Harvey Weinstein’s titular company was teetering on the financial brink.
But distribution is the siren call that many find hard to resist given that buyers have far more power and influence than sellers. Upon entering the fray in 2017, Ellison immediately made some head-scratching moves like poaching several highly paid execs from Sony to beef up an interactive division, where there is little in the way of revenue streams. But she also made some enviable deals, locking in Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Barry Jenkins’ Pastel (fresh off Moonlight’s best picture win) for producing deals. Even with a best picture win under his belt, no other studio was looking to make the director’s follow-up, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. “Baldwin had never been adapted into a feature film in the English language, and Megan was devout in her mission to empower me to bring his voice to the big screen uncompromised,” notes Jenkins.
Known to be shy and frequently dubbed “mercurial,” Ellison has never spoken to the press on the record, including for this story (though she tweets regularly and has been quoted after a speech in Cannes). Despite the fact that she has churned out awards-friendly fare at a pace few can match (this year, she can claim 14 Oscar nominations for producing Adam McKay’s Vice, If Beale Street Could Talk and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), the prevailing view of Ellison among rival distributors is that she spends too liberally, gives her talent free rein and is not engaged with her staff. Naegle, the former president of HBO who shepherded Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, is quick to counter that narrative.
“It’s been frustrating for me to see people be so critical from the outside,” says Naegle, who was promoted in January to oversee film, TV, theater and interactive. “I try not to listen to the chatter.”
Since its inception in 2011, Annapurna has been a home for auteurs and edgy fare — David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit, Jonze’s Her, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s R-rated animated breakout Sausage Party — while also championing first-time directors like Sorry to Bother You‘s Boots Riley. Actress Olivia Wilde will make her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, to be released by the company May 24 (after premiering at SXSW). “There is no other studio that would have greenlit the version of the movie I pitched, which is the exact same movie they are releasing,” says Wilde.
Actress Regina King says part of the allure of joining Jenkins’ Beale Street was working with Ellison, whom she calls “bold and brave” (King is up for best supporting actress for the film). “Sadly, it’s still rare to see a book like If Beale Street Could Talk developed, produced and distributed by a studio,” King adds.
Nevertheless, the company has a reputation for being fiscally reckless — a talking point initially spread by Weinstein, who was smarting over the fact that Bigelow opted to make Zero Dark Thirty with Ellison rather than him, and that has only gained traction in the wake of high-profile money losers. A rival distributor scoffs, “Why did Vice cost $60 million? It could have been made for $25 million.” The Dick Cheney pic will almost certainly lose money, despite grossing $55 million worldwide as of press time. Though similar criticisms are often leveled at other buyers, Ellison is the only one who is frequently subjected to press that her father is seizing control, like she’s a wayward teen. “A lot of times when I hear those comments, to me they feel very misogynistic. There’s a bias,” says Naegle. “Certain kinds of people have a very bad habit of writing about female-led companies with certain language.”
One manager with an A-list client who has worked with Annapurna says the reason Ellison has so many Hollywood haters is that she doesn’t kiss up to the power structure. “People cannot stand that she is powerful and doesn’t need to return your phone calls. She just doesn’t need you,” says the manager. “But the woman has great taste and is making movies that no one else is making.” MGM worldwide motion picture president Jonathan Glickman simply calls her “a disrupter.”
As for overspending, insiders lay much of the blame on Barnard, who joined the company at the outset and abruptly departed in October. One source says she filed $60,000 worth of expenses for a London trip during production of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread despite never visiting the set, while a producer who worked with her on one of Annapurna’s misfires says she racked up more than $100,000 worth of unused airfare. An Annapurna spokesperson says the numbers are inflated but will concede that under Barnard’s watch the budget for the Roger Ailes film, which stars Charlize Theron, ballooned to a number that was no longer fiscally prudent. (Lionsgate picked up the project.) Barnard is said to have signed an NDA and declined to comment.
From the get-go, Annapurna has struggled when it comes to releasing its homegrown movies like Bigelow’s Detroit ($17 million) and this year’s Nicole Kidman starrer Destroyer ($1.5 million). “In the world of film distribution, two years is very early in the game,” says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “They’re developing a very eclectic slate, and they certainly have swung for the fences.”
Naegle says any belt-tightening will be on a case-by-case basis, but rivals and even some agents are skeptical. In fact, we may already be seeing it. At Sundance, the team pursued the comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, a film that sold to Amazon for $14 million. But a source says Annapurna never submitted a formal offer. “When we’re competing against Amazon, it’s not comparable. We are in two different businesses,” Naegle adds. “We have to factor in the amount of marketing and theatrical release. So at some point the money doesn’t always make sense for us.” More troubling was the fact that the company also chased the horror film The Lodge, a film that sold to Neon for $2 million, but didn’t land it. Again, Annapurna never made a formal offer.
For now, Naegle says Annapurna will focus on getting two priority films into production. First is a drama about Weinstein’s epic fall, based on the Pulitzer Prize reporting of The New York Times‘ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, that Plan B is producing. The company is waiting on a draft to come in from Rebecca Lenkiewicz and will then find a director. Second is Not Fade Away, which David O. Russell and John Krasinski are producing and which is based on a 2015 memoir by Rebecca Alexander, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that slowly is taking her sight and hearing. Further out, Annapurna inked a blind script deal with Riley following the success of Sorry to Bother You, a film that Annapurna bought at Sundance 2018 for $2 million and that earned $17.5 million.
As for finished films, Booksmart will be followed in August by Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? on Aug. 9. The company just locked Miranda July’s untitled movie starring Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood (also with Plan B producing). And though rival buyers seemed to think that the Armie Hammer-Dakota Johnson starrer Wounds, which made its world premiere in Sundance in January, was being dumped, the company says it plans to release it in 2019.
Annapurna’s theater division is a co-producer of the National Theatre’s production of Network, starring Bryan Cranston, and the lead producer of the upcoming New York premiere of the one-woman play Fleabag, from Phoebe Waller-Bridge. They join four shows currently in production: Nine Night, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Lehman Trilogy and Home, I’m Darling. And with the 2-plus-year-old TV division hitting its stride — it has four projects going into production this year, including HBO miniseries Plot Against America and Netflix series Mixtape — Naegle can turn her attention to the film group’s anemic development slate.
As Ellison gears up to attend her fifth Oscar ceremony, she’s eschewing a showy party in favor of an intimate gathering at the Chateau Marmont the night before the ceremony. The invite list includes just staffers and friends and families of the studio’s nominees. Ellison may be looking for her footing as a reluctant mogul. But with five best picture noms under her belt, it’s clear she’s doing something right, even if she has likely lost millions in the process.
“I don’t think what we do is going to change that much. We’re going to still look to be provocative and look to movies that say something,” says Naegle. “And make some noise.”
That part, they’ve done.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.