Megan Ellison Mystery: What's Going on at Annapurna Pictures?

Megan Ellison Producers Guild Awards - Getty - H 2018
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

After unloading titles and parting ways with the company's president of film, it is unclear whether there are larger problems afoot or the nascent studio simply was cleaning house.

What a difference a day makes.

By outward appearances, Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures was humming along like any other deep-pocketed indie distributor with big ambitions. But a series of moves on Oct. 9 — beginning with the company unloading a promising Fox News Roger Ailes movie with an A-list cast two weeks before production was set to begin — raise question marks about the health of Annapurna.

Hours after The Hollywood Reporter reported that the Jay Roach-helmed Fox News film was looking for a new home with rivals Focus Features, Amblin and Participant circling, news surfaced that the company's president of film Chelsea Barnard had exited. That coincided with reports that Annapurna also had dumped a Jennifer Lopez-Constance Wu stripper film based on the New York magazine piece "The Hustlers at Scores," with STX picking it up as the day progressed. But the Lopez film's exit was not as abrupt as the Fox News project. A source says the former had been in turnaround for a few weeks.

Both projects had been championed by Barnard. Whether there are larger problems afoot at Annapurna or the nascent studio simply was cleaning house of Barnard and her projects remains to be seen. If it’s the former, watch for activity around the upcoming James Bond film to heat up. MGM will be distributing domestically through its joint venture with Annapurna.

Annapurna declined to comment but insisted that there are no issues with the financial health of the company.

Still, there have been red flags in recent days. A source says that Annapurna was required to take out a completion bond for the Fox News film, which would be highly unusual for a company with Ellison's funds (the daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison is said to have poured some $200 million into the company, which began as a production and financing entity and pivoted to full distributor last year with the release of Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit). Insiders say the completion bond requirement indicates that some financial issues are at play. Another source not involved directly with Annapurna says that Ellison has the full backing of the banks she utilizes for cash flow and financing. An Annapurna rep denied that the Fox News film was required to take out a completion bond. 

But at least one company that has a deal with Annapurna was said to be looking for a new distribution partner days before Tuesday's news broke.

Another troubling sign is that the Fox News movie team — which includes such high-profile stars as Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie and John Lithgow — had been blindsided by the move to jettison the project, which was expected to cost $35 million. It is unclear why Annapurna would part ways with the hot-button project even at a $35 million budget (that figure is less than Annapurna's upcoming Dick Cheney biopic Vice, an awards-season hopeful that cost some $60 million).

Annapurna also has been taking on co-financing partners on a number of recent projects, including the Fox News film. Canada-based Bron Studios (Fences) came on the Fox News film as a smaller backer in recent months. But when the film looked as though it might be shelved altogether in recent days, Bron upped its stake.

Barnard, who has been with Annapurna since its inception back in 2011, was named head of film at the company in January 2017. Executives who do business with Annapurna described her as Ellison's right hand and best friend. There is no explanation yet for her abrupt departure.

In perhaps a fitting ending to the dramatic day, Ellison skipped last night's If Beale Street Could Talk premiere in Harlem. Like Vice, the Annapurna film from Barry Jenkins also is considered an awards contender.