I think it’s probably easy to criticize Megan Ellison. She was born rich and was able to buy her way into Hollywood with billions of dollars at her disposal, and produced her first movie when she was 23 after not having to work her way up the ladder, so sure, it’s not hard to throw stones and maybe call her a dilettante.
Of course, you take one look at her filmography and the quality of the projects that have her name on them, and that dilettante crap gets thrown out quicker than yesterday’s garbage. The movies she has produced — not executive produced, mind you, but actually served as one of the film’s hands-on producers — have been nominated for 25 Oscars, and she herself has earned three Best Picture nods, for Zero Dark Thirty, Her and American Hustle, the latter two of which were released in the same year.
That’s not a feat that has occurred all too often in the history of the Academy Awards, by the way. Just three people did it before her (Francis Ford Coppola and Fred Roos in 1974 for The Godfather II and The Conversation, and Scott Rudin in 2010, for The Social Network and True Grit), and, in fact, she is the first woman to accomplish the feat.
The point is, Ellison has street cred to spare. She’s made her bones, and then some. Pick whatever cliché about how much she’s accomplished that you’d like.
The thing she and her Annapurna Pictures team do so well is focus on making movies that might not otherwise be made.The Master, Her and Foxcatcher, to name three, are not the kinds of movies the studios tend to make anymore. That’s a shame, of course, but Ellison is one of the producers who have stepped in to pick up the slack and fill the void of adult dramas.
So, y’know, throw stones if you like, but you’d be tossing them in the wrong direction. It’s pretty safe to say that underestimating her is something someone should do at their own risk.
Which is why I believe that her decision to crossover into the film distribution business is probably going to be the right one. Starting with Zero Dark Thirty helmer Kathryn Bigelow’s next film, an untitled drama about the 1967 Detroit riots, Annapurna will be a full-service distributor, like A24, The Weinstein Company or STX Entertainment. Suddenly, the company moves into a totally new category, one rife with both great possibilities and grave danger.
After all, the list of failed indie distributors — companies that arrived on the scene only to quickly vanish without fanfare — is long and esteemed. Distributors like Destination, Artisan, USA Films, Newmarket, Rogue and Picturehouse have all come and gone. Others have seen their fortunes wax and wane, and even the Weinstein Company has seen some trouble of late.
It’s a rough business, is what I’m saying. Although, let’s be honest, so is making the movies themselves. Rich people go broke trying to do it all the time, so just imagine how hard it is to actually put those films on movie screens.
Sure, you don’t have to pay for the physical prints anymore — saving you millions of dollars, really — but there’s still publicity and advertising, and that gets costly. Promotion is an expensive business, and if you’re making the kinds of movies Annapurna makes — films that more often than not have awards hopes, it gets even more so. Just last week, I wrote about how The Founder got lost in the shuffle because TWC didn’t have the money to properly promote it. When you’re not just producing a project but also putting it out there for people to see, the buck really stops with you.
If you’re just producing a film, you see, most of your job ends when you sell it to the distributor, but when you’re the distributor, it never does. Ever. There are too many variables, loose ends, fees and payouts that need to happen. Too much investment that might never be recouped. Again, the same could be said for actually producing the films, but Ellison has deals in place and works with the kind of top talent that essentially ensures that Annapurna’s film will receive distribution. If she’s distributing them herself, that safety net disappears awfully quickly.
The fact that she’s hired established pros like Marc Weinstock, who ran domestic theatrical marketing at 20th Century Fox for years, David Kaminow, former president of worldwide strategic marketing and research at Sony Pictures, where he oversaw all worldwide theatrical market research during the best years in the studio’s history, and Erik Lomis, who ran distribution for the Weinsteins for five years before joining Annapurna 11 months ago, should tell you everything you need to know about where this operation is going and what plans Ellison has in store. Heavy hitters like these guys? Yeah, I’m not betting against them.
The question I have is, will Annapurna change its mission statement at all? Ellison has made a name for herself and her company by taking on difficult projects, but which aren’t necessarily box office catnip. Those three movies I mentioned above? The Master, Her and Foxcatcher? They combined to make $87.5 million worldwide. Numbers like that won’t necessarily keep the distribution doors open, so I wonder if perhaps the company’s scope might expand to a blockbuster or two. And, if not, does the company go the other way and take fewer chances because of the increased risk involved?
My guess is a little of both. Just this year alone, Annapurna has Bigelow’s Detroit project, Paul Thomas Anderson’s next film with Daniel Day-Lewis, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing with Matt Damon. PTA’s films don’t necessarily set the box office on fire (his most successful is There Will Be Blood, with $76 million worldwide), but Payne and Bigelow tend to draw solid crowds, which is certainly a good place to start. Smart movies with a mix of prestige and commercial appeal (think Sully or Arrival) will be key, and probably what will set the company apart.
There’s plenty of time to do what she clearly has in mind, which is take over Hollywood entirely. Honestly, from what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t put it past her.