An apocryphal joke in the film industry gives advice on how to become a millionaire in indie film: “Be a billionaire, spend $999 million on making indie films, then you’ll be a millionaire!” Megan Ellison, founder of the production company and distributor Annapurna Pictures, sure fu…nded around and found out. While the 10th anniversary of A24 garnered significant tributes, a similar milestone passed for her company without much fanfare at all – despite the fact that her exploits may ultimately have had a larger impact on the current trajectory of filmmaking.
An early-twenties Megan Ellison entered the film world in the early 2010s armed with a healthy disdain for Hollywood decorum. It certainly did not hurt that she also came with a billion-dollar inheritance from her father, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, which she used to start Annapurna. Her genius was not in any particular business insight so much as it was in leveraging connections and relationships with filmmakers whose reputations were propped up by the studio-funded late-‘90s adult drama boom. Her gender, youth, and privilege both opened many doors as it also opened her up to some unfair criticism – a line of defense frequently wielded by her allies to brush off attacks they viewed as out-of-bounds.
But as the company teeters somewhere between its zenith and nadir, it’s become increasingly clear Ellison’s primary innovation with Annapurna was simply opportunely timed imitation. Her company emerged from the ashes of austerity in post-recession Hollywood. After major studios’ indie shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures folded, she did for established directors what A24 did for upstart indie talents. With the big entertainment conglomerates beginning their slow drift toward intellectual property-driven tentpoles and smaller outfits feeling the financial pinch, she found a hole in the market for the thinking person’s film and filled it by leveraging a tech-world mentality. “Megan allows a decision to go forward, to be quick, and talent deals to have a certain amount of assurance that the movie is going to happen,” producing partner Charles Roven told Vanity Fair in 2013.
She launched Annapurna properly in 2012 with an enviable slate of produced or financed films that included Cannes competition titles Lawless and Killing Them Softly alongside major auteur efforts like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. She got the best of both worlds to start: scrappy indie productions bolstered by flashy studio marketing. Ellison then built on those initial successes in the coming two years with films that scored the rare combination of critical laurels and audience response – David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Spike Jonze’s Her. These twinned triumphs made her the first female producer to receive two Best Picture nominations in the same year. By 2014, Ellison landed on Time’s 100 most influential people list, where collaborator and chum Jessica Chastain lauded her as a modern Medici for her art patronage.
But even then, the sharks had already begun to circle, waiting to pounce on the first drop of blood. Read any story about Ellison from this period, and you’ll find an embarrassing amount of anonymously sourced quotes trashing her in private for not playing by the rules, almost certainly from the very people who would later go kiss the ring and beg for table scraps of her vast fortune to fund their own pet project. There’s a bizarre schadenfreude that often greets those willing to color outside the lines in Hollywood. Business gets done in a certain way for a reason, sure, but said business is currently in dire straits. Complete denial of either tradition or innovation is foolish.
That trajectory started to cool off once Annapurna moved into distributing its own films in 2017. The company’s golden touch got a real test when they tried to sell films from creators with less of a track record, pushing first-time directors like Olivia Wilde as well as the first English language feature by Jacques Audiard. Though the company still scraped out some awards success through Adam McKay’s Vice and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, inconsistent box office results threatened profitability given their films’ hefty price tags. Starting in 2018, they had to tighten the belt and let go of the projects that would become Hustlers and Bombshell.
The damage hit Annapurna’s balance sheets to such an extent that Larry Ellison had to bring in his own accounts to stave off bankruptcy. But the damage was not just done to Annapurna – it was also done by them, to the industry at large. From the earliest days of the company, industry insiders raised warning signs that Ellison’s spendthrift ways could have negative externalities. She indulged the big-name directors with whom she worked from the very beginning; an early profile of Ellison claimed she was “inclined to reinforce rather than challenge their choices.” The output of these films is often pure and unencumbered by financial constraints, which undeniably contributed to Annapurna releasing some decade-defining films right out of the gate. But those choices came with a price: raising the industry’s ceiling and decimating its floor.
Her producing style led to ballooning budgets and inflated expectations alike for movies that were otherwise impossible for the industry to support. As similarly high-minded labels like FilmDistrict, Broad Green, and Open Road bit the dust, Annapurna appeared on fire – but only because it was burning cash. This smokescreen merely presented the mirage of an illusory arthouse audience willing to turn out for expensive auteur projects. Unlike A24, which leveraged low-cost digital marketing to create viral sensations generating buzz against their lower-budgeted titles, Annapurna never mastered the art of selling their movies to a crowd that became increasingly hard to reach in the digital era.
Similarly cash-flush competitors sought to build a facsimile of Ellison’s operation. Producer Ted Hope had a similarly promising start following the Annapurna model with Amazon Studios, but some high-priced duds led to regime and strategy change within the company. For the moment, Netflix is the last bastion of big budgets for serious original filmmaking. But with investors panicking over declining subscription revenue, the days of nine-figure budgets for Martin Scorsese and J.C. Chandor are almost certainly numbered.
Thanks to the Ellison-fueled bloat of adult fare, there may be little left beyond the Blumhouse model. With smaller bets and tighter budgets, the company forces filmmakers to color within clearly defined lines – although it does provide more opportunity for breakout hits that can fund sustainable successes like Spike Lee’s Black kKklansman.
A decade on, Annapurna is hardly recognizable to the company it began as. Ellison, who has confounded critics and champions alike, has taken a much lower profile and is no longer such a public face for the distributor. Their future in theatrical distribution is uncertain after providing the faintest whimper of a release for Jerrod Carmichael’s Sundance prize-winning directorial debut On the Count of Three back in May; the title recently appeared on streaming marked as a “Hulu Original.” Ellison has also expanded Annapurna into the game of television miniseries – a format whose boom in the last five years is attributable in no small part to the decline of original feature films – and recently received her first Emmy nomination for producing Pam & Tommy.
Financially, she’s hitched the company’s wagon to United Artists Releasing, a company whose primary value lies in holding the rights to distribute the 007 films. The company’s 50% stake in UAR, itself hollowed out by changes to the business model, means that its financial health is largely determined by how audiences feel about James Bond. With the character due for recasting after Daniel Craig’s swan song, the future of Annapurna now resembles much of the arthouse market at large — dependent on franchise entertainment to lead audiences back to theaters and praying that these giant titles have long, rideable coattails.
Megan Ellison and Annapurna fit the model neither for savior nor scammer. Their first decade of operation resides somewhere in a mushy middle between cautionary tale and tragedy. But billionaires like Megan Ellison can always count on an escape hatch for space, Hawaii (her family dynasty’s favorite haunt), or their next half-baked venture. It’s us who get left with empty theaters, broken dreams, and a bill for industry transformation that’s well past due.