In only a few short years, Megan Ellison—who started up Annapurna in 2011—has taken a small, vibrant, indie production company and methodically turned it into an impressive mini-major. Those in town are comparing Annapurna to the heyday of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax, which dominated the ’90s, but a more appropriate analogy might be Orion Pictures, the prestige indie outfit of the ’80s.
Ellison is financing, acquiring and producing high-quality fare with cutting-edge filmmakers. Initially, Annapurna financed and produced films and then distributed them through others, but since hiring away executives from The Weinstein Company and Fox, Ellison has now built her own marketing and distribution departments for her slate. She also established her own TV division as well, hiring former HBO Entertatinment President Sue Naegle.
Megan Ellison’s father is Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, and with that comes deep—very deep—pockets. “It’s good to have a dad who is a mega-billionaire,” says one entrepreneur and producer. “She certainly has the resources to stay in the game. She is doing the smart thing, unlike others around town, by not building the marketing and distribution up before they had product. Many of these start-ups go too quickly so they can beat their chests and say, ‘Look what we have.’”
While there are naysayers pointing to a rocky (and unprofitable) string of movies at its start, no one can argue with the sheer amount of critical kudos Annapurna has gleaned. In fact, over the past five years, the company can boast 32 Academy Award nominations, and Ellison is one of only four honorees ever to receive two Best Picture nominations in the same year, with Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle both earning nods in 2014.
It’s reminiscent of another company that began disrupting Hollywood about three decades ago—the old Orion Pictures, which was run by Mike Medavoy, Arthur Krim, Eric Pleskow, Bill Bernstein and Bob Benjamin. Initially a joint venture with Warner Bros., Orion entered into deals with great filmmakers and let them do what they knew best, and it wasn’t long before the company was on a roll both commercially and critically, garnering multiple Best Picture trophies.
When the executives broke off and ventured out as a standalone outfit, they began putting together their own marketing and distribution departments. The difference between Annapurna and Orion is that Orion Pictures had inherited a library—consisting of Filmways and AIP titles—that it could draw on when it started its distribution and marketing divisions. Also helping to pump cash in was that Orion also owned the first two or three years of Saturday Night Live and was getting money out of syndication because of an early deal Orion TV made with Lorne Michaels.
Orion, at least initially, ended up garnering more success, with more Academy Award nominations than any other studio in town. It was during this time in the mid 1980s that it earned two Best Picture wins with Miloš Forman’s Amadeus and Oliver Stone’s Platoon. But after a string of costly flops, Orion started to fail as the company found itself having to continue to pay out large salaries and overhead, whether it had product to take to market or not. At the end, it tried to stay alive by signing up with Columbia Pictures for distribution, but it was no use. Orion ended up going bankrupt.
“Yes, that’s exactly what happened,” confirms one major player from that era. “They immediately started a company and started a marketing and distribution company that, by the time they got it together, they were out of money. The overhead killed them.”
It wasn’t until towards the end of its run that the company began getting in the groove again, with two back-to-back Best Picture wins—Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs—but then it found itself having to sell The Addams Family to Paramount for cost (about $17 million) because it was so cash-strapped. The Addams Family would later become a big box-office success, spawning a franchise with two sequels for Paramount.
While Orion Pictures is a cautionary tale for Annapurna, the five year old company seems to be moving much slower and steadier. “I think she’s really smart and has done a good job in growing her business,” says producer Mike Medavoy, co-founder of Orion and current producer of The Promise starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. And he should know.
The first movie that Annapurna will market and distribute on its own will be from its Zero Dark Thirty team Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal—Detroit, about the city’s 1967 race riots—which drops on Aug. 4 this year.
“I think the mistake that most independents make is that they immediately hire and put together marketing and distribution departments before they have movies to put into the market place,” says producer Adam Fields, a former executive at Miramax. “So they have to feed the beast, and they then have to carry this massive overhead prematurely, which, in turn, forces them to make decisions and push through films they otherwise might not have.”
But is Annapurna really like Miramax, as so many people around town say? “People compare them to Miramax, but [that company] didn’t make all of those movies,” says Fields. “Many of them initially were acquisitions, and Harvey being aggressive at Cannes and Sundance to get the product, which doesn’t require a massive amount of overhead. I give him a lot of credit.”
Comparatively, New Line Cinema started to falter as they tried desperately to move out of niche genre films and into bigger-budgeted, more commercial films, like Peter Chelsom’s Town & Country and Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight. Lionsgate, on the other hand, grew slow and steady and have put in place a structure to offset risk to the point of (in some cases) regret from the top-ranking executives there.
Annapurna is clearly employing a similar strategy to Orion with a priority on making deals with great filmmakers. It has just sealed a deal to bring Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner’s Plan B (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, The Big Short, World War Z) into the fold, which is a major coup. “I like my dealings with Annapurna,” says one top agent. “In general, Megan has been great for our business. When she started she was a real patron of the arts and had engaged filmmakers in a way that is creating original stories. I think that’s very good for the art of film.”
Annapurna has a number of filmmaker-friendly projects on its upcoming slate, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s untitled new period film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s book Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
“I’m a fan of Megan’s,” says Charles Roven, one of the producers on their 10-time Academy Award nominated film American Hustle. “My experience with that company—which was several years ago—was very good. She’s a great partner and collaborator and has great taste. She comes from the right place, in terms of the decisions she makes, in that she’s always looking out for the best interests of the picture.”
Roven believes that running a company that is interested in making all kinds of different movies—not just tent-poles—is essential for the film industry.
“It allows new talent to express themselves and emerge,” he reasons. “It’s so important to have a venue for them to express themselves [in film]. There are so many other options these days besides theatrical, but I’m a producer who believes in the theatrical business—and it’s clear with Annapurna’s distribution expansion that they do, too.”