To some, the young scion, independent film financier, producer and founder of Annapurna Pictures is the best thing that’s happened to movies. She’s rich, has taste and has cut checks last year for auteurs like John Hillcoat (“Lawless”), Andrew Dominik (“Killing Them Softly,”) Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”). This year she'll be co-distributing films by Harmony Korine and Wong Kar Wai (“Spring Breakers” and “The Grandmaster”) and producing and funding pictures by Spike Jonze ("Her"), Bennett Miller ("Foxcatcher") and David O. Russell (his untitled Abscam picture). For young cinephiles, she is the second coming. But not everyone in the industry looks at her as favorably. Fans and filmmakers love her. Wary press (Sharon Waxman penned a diatribe against Ellison) and Hollywood insiders tend to be distrustful of her ability to cut checks without worrying how those consequences could affect the industry (none of her 2012 movies made a profit outside of “Zero Dark Thirty” once you factor in P&I; most don’t even need that figure in there).
So is Megan Ellison the savior of independent film, or a naive rich kid with taste and a lot of "dumb money" that wants to hang out with celebrities and rub shoulders with directors? In a fair and balanced piece portraying both sides of the coin, Vanity Fair suggests a bit of both: an entrepreneur who has wrestled with balancing art and commerce while trying to navigate her way through the swimming-with-sharks waters of Hollywood. Here’s seven things we learned from the magazine's profile.
Evidently when “Zero Dark Thirty” was mounting up its casting search, Chastain’s CAA agents told the producers she was too busy to even look at the movie. Ellison wouldn’t take no for an answer and was instrumental in her casting, essentially stalking her via text. “If I ever ask you for anything in my life, it’s to call me back for five minutes,” Jessica Chastain herself recalls of the message Ellison send her. “I said, ‘That’s very dramatic, what is it you need, missy.’ ”
“And Megan said, ‘O.K., we have this film, and Kathryn Bigelow wants you. We went to your agent and were told you are busy. I cannot accept that for an answer,’ ” Chastain remembered with laughter. “Megan was so determined and passionate. This girl then really went to town [negotiating the deal] to make sure I got on the picture.”
While that seems potentially nutty, let the record show that Chastain seems to be very much in her corner and by all accounts, the two get along just fine.
Paul Thomas Anderson had initially set up "The Master" over at Universal before they decided that spending $35 million on a movie about two connected lost souls with allusions to Scientology at its core was too risky and rich for their blood. With the project adrift, Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures stepped in and with distribution by The Weinstein Company, funded and helped bring “The Master” to the screen for $35 million (though some reports suggest that number is closer to $40 million).
According to Vanity Fair, sometime in the project's lost months, PTA almost made a deal with Fox Searchlight to make the movie on a budget of $18 million. But Ellison swooped in and, according to one source, “offered P.T.A. literally twice as much, just because she wanted to, and just because she could.”
Topping out at $16 million domestically and $24 million worldwide, “The Master” lost money (not helped by the decision to shoot and showcase the movie in 70mm) and even Harvey Weinstein himself admitted as much. Some believe it was a bad move and one that hurts all of the film industry in the end. “There’s no rationale on the planet where you green-light ‘The Master’ over $25 million,” said one source. “Not on the script, not on PTA as a filmmaker, not on the subject.” Vanity Fair says it’s thought that Ellison has lost as much as $20 million on the project – although she evidently disputes the figure.
For fans of filmmaker Andrew Dominik, don't be worried about his box office, as he's still got someone in his corner. He’s had what amounts to two perceived flops in a row, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and more recently, “Killing Them Softly," both starring Brad Pitt. ‘Softly’ scored a rare F Cinemascore with audiences, but the film did eventually crawl to almost $15 million domestically – the equivalent of its reported budget, and on the strength of Brad Pitt’s name and face, made another $20 million internationally.
Regardless, Annapurna believes in the filmmmaker and is backing Dominik’s upcoming film, "Blonde," starring Naomi Watts as Marilyn Monroe, and based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel about the famed movie star. Many cinephiles worried that the cool reception to “Killing Them Softly” (and its initially slow box-office) might hurt that film’s chances of getting made, but VF says the picture will have a $20 million budget and Ellison will have a “much more substantial role” in releasing the film.
Dominik says she is “interested in setting up circumstances where she can take control of the [marketing] process,” though her spokesperson claims it’s “too early in her career to make that call.” Still, eyebrows will be raised here, no doubt. However, someone who may not be involved in Dominik's next effort is Harvey Weinstein...