As Annapurna Teeters, Why Are So Many Rooting for Megan Ellison to Fail?

THR_Megan Ellison -Illustration by Matt Collins-H 2019
Matt Collins

The Oracle heiress' Annapurna Pictures faces financial headwinds, but the producer behind such films as 'Vice,' 'The Master' and 'Booksmart' should be praised for her increasingly rare commitment to quality.

Let me be frank: Megan Ellison is a pain in the neck. From a reporter's point of view, she's aloof, unconcerned with branding, as secretive as the Kremlin. She's that worst of all creatures when it comes to dealing with the press: someone who has no desire for press. Then why do I admire her so much?

Because there's no executive now who has a greater passion for film — and not just the medium but a particular kind of movie-making that's becoming an endangered species: the specialty release, the thoughtful, character-driven drama that the majors long ago turned their backs on.

There aren't many who share her devotion: a few execs in the art house world (Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker, Fox Searchlight's Nancy Utley) and even the occasional studio suit (Amy Pascal before she got booted out of Sony, and Tom Rothman, the man who replaced her).

In another time and place, we wouldn't just admire Ellison's commitment, we'd revere it. She's not just an investor, she's a patron, and if her patronage were lavished on a different art form — say, subsidizing sculptors or bestowing gifts on the Metropolitan Opera — she'd be lionized. But because her obsession is movies, people are skeptical — as if, deep down, we still don't consider film equal to all those other art forms, as if show business should be the operative term. And so the strangest of phenomena is taking place: People are rooting for her to fail.

When The Hollywood Reporter reported Aug. 7 that Ellison's company, Annapurna Pictures, has retained a law firm to explore a possible bankruptcy, some felt a kind of glee rather than sorrow — not anyone who'll go on the record, of course; but among the 1 p.m. lunch set in Beverly Hills and Burbank, there's a veritable thrill at rumors of Annapurna's possible demise.

Admittedly, part of this emanates from resentment at the source of Ellison's funding: It comes from her dad, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. And so skepticism about her bona fides abounds, just as it does about all those other rich-kids-made-good, from the Murdochs on down — sometimes unfounded, sometimes legitimate. Only it's that much worse for Ellison because she's a woman.

Her brother, David, gets none of the same flak. His Skydance has had better fiscal results with pictures like True Grit, World War Z and Mission: Impossible — Fallout, good pieces of entertainment but none of them life-changing. Still, his relative immunity to criticism, in contrast to his sister, means sexism has to play a part.

It's still unclear how perilous Ellison's finances are, though the vast amount she's lavished on production, marketing and, since 2017, a distribution arm, doesn't seem remotely justified by the box office of her films. If her company's financial situation causes her to make fewer or less ambitious films, that would be a shattering loss.

This is the woman who greenlit films from The Master to Zero Dark Thirty, from Spring Breakers to American Hustle, from If Beale Street Could Talk to this summer's excellent Booksmart; who's allowed such auteurs as David O. Russell, Barry Jenkins and Kathryn Bigelow to work free of constraint; who's financed some of the most interesting and challenging projects of the past decade.

She follows in a long tradition of mavericks who put their money where their mouths were, from Sam Goldwyn to Sam Spiegel. These weren't just gamblers, they were zealots, no matter how bullying and belligerent, regardless of their flaws.

Maybe the time for zealots has passed. Maybe we just don't trust people who sacrifice their soul for their passion, much less those who sacrifice their wallet. But that's what Ellison has done. In an era of algorithms and the anodyne, she's a reminder of what loving movies is all about.

This story appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.