In 2011, Megan Ellison, the daughter of Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, decided she wanted to make movies. After financing a couple of less than stellar indie movies in earlier years, she hit the jackpot when an investment in the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic Western True Grit paid off with both critical and commercial success. Her company began to garner impressive headlines in 2012 when they produced an array of daring auteur-driven films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Spike Jonze’s Her, and David O. Russell’s American Hustle. Ellison became the first woman to receive two Best Picture Oscar nominations in the same year, and all before she turned 35. For a brief moment, film lovers like me began to view the company with some hope. It was simply encouraging to see someone with money to burn put it to good use, especially at a time when getting funding for films that aren’t superhero blockbusters has become increasingly difficult.
Now, the shine has gone from the company, and Annapurna looks like it’s in serious trouble.
Last week, it was announced that the company would be dropping two high-profile projects from its roster: The Hustlers at Scores, a stripper heist movie starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu; and Jay Roach’s film on Roger Ailes’ ousting at Fox News. The latter was especially troubling given that the project is only two weeks from production and has a glittering cast of stars, including Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie. The company’s film production president Chelsea Barnard was also let go, and gossip has continued to swirl that Larry Ellison has stepped in to clear up his daughter’s financial mess.
So, what the hell happened?
Annapurna Pictures was probably always too good to be true. Ellison promised a Silicon Valley-driven approach to making movies, one that ran towards risk and saw true worth in the underdogs. It’s a great dream but, at best, it’s a naïve reading of Silicon Valley as well as the film industry. For one, Ellison didn’t start out with major risks. She still invested in known names like Anderson, Bigelow, Jonze, and the Coen brothers. These film-makers were already Oscar winners or nominees by the time Annapurna came knocking and had experience in making money. Granted, these weren’t consistent - when are they ever in the indie world? - they were top rank names that meant something in Hollywood.
These films were big deals but not all of them made money. The Master was a critical darling and 3-time Oscar nominee but it didn’t make back its budget. The film was also allegedly mired in tensions between Annapurna and its co-producer, The Weinstein Company. Indeed, to look at Annapurna’s track record is to look at a host of almost hits, major flops and a few money-makers that prove to be the exception but not the rule: American Hustle was a major success but Russell’s follow-up, Joy, made a lot less and on a bigger budget. American Hustle remains the company’s highest grossing movie with $251.2m worldwide, but that was 5 years ago. There’s nothing to stop a film like 20th Century Women or Foxcatcher from being a hit, but it’s not enough to just pour money into a project and hope for the best.
Annapurna also made what many have declared to be a major mistake when they made the move from production to distribution. The responsibilities increase tenfold for a company when they have to not only get a film made but make sure people actually see it. Their first effort as a distributor, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, was a massive flop, making only $24.1m from a budget of around $34-40m. While the film had its controversies, it should have been a hell of a lot easier for an Oscar-winning director’s critically acclaimed drama to make more than its reasonably sized budget.
Later films distributed by Annapurna - Mike White’s Brad’s Status, Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Eli Roth’s Death Wish - either flopped or what would be generously called modest hits. The exception to the rule was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a legitimate success that made back close to 5 ½ times its budget. Yet even that film was mired in gossip over its lack of international distribution, something that Annapurna should have been able to sort out. The fact that they didn’t only increased chatter over their money problems, something that reached a tipping point since their most recent release, The Sisters Brothers (which is still one of my favourite films of 2018), has only grossed $757,000 since arriving in theaters on September 21st.
Cost remains a major problem for Annapurna. They pump a lot of money into films that, frankly, could have been done with much tighter budgets. The cost for the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic, Vice, has proven to be a topic of much ire in recent reports over the company’s finances. $80m for a film with an inherently limited audience, released during a politically contentious time is flat-out ridiculous. As one Annapurna insider noted to Vulture, ‘You cannot make this movie for more than $35 million. It breaks even at 80. That’s the through line.’ Using the traditional markers of success - a film making 2 ½ times its budget equals breaking even - Vice will need to make at least $200m worldwide. Nobody is predicting that.
The main issue with Annapurna seems to be Megan Ellison herself. Vulture’s report describes her as ‘a mercurial presence by people inside the company’, one who veers dramatically between being obsessively hands-on with business and disappearing for months on end. Ellison has been described as someone who doesn’t take instructions well, which sounds about right for a billionaire’s kid who basically paid her way into the film industry at the age of 25. There’s a huge difference between being a producer and being a patron. Every film fan has that dream of throwing blank cheques at their favourite film-makers and letting them do whatever the hell they want, but the industry relies on more than just money.
The chances are Annapurna Pictures will seriously cut down on the number of films they make and distribute, and it would benefit Ellison to bring on a board of executives who can make tough decisions without her. And it would be a real shame if Annapurna were to shut or dramatically change their ethos. A24 can’t be the only game in town putting money into daring indie projects (Amazon Pictures have had a prickly 2018 too). We’re in an age of media monopolies, zero risks, endless remakes and franchises, and the growing acceptance that our future options will either be Disney or Netflix. It’s bad enough the long-term health of our media and journalism seems reliant on whether your organization will be bought by a good billionaire or a bad one. it would be sad to lose one of the handful of companies that doesn’t think of every film as the starting point for its own Marvel-style expanded universe. Yet even Annapurna is getting into the blockbuster game, as they acquired the US distribution rights to the 25th Bond movie. Perhaps that’s the big project that will help keep the little ones afloat. Whatever the case, Annapurna Pictures is another reminder that not everything can or should be run like it’s a Silicon Valley investment.