Vanity Fair’s 2013 Hollywood issue is kind of the gift that keeps on giving. It not only has an awesome oral history of “Pulp Fiction” (highlights of which you can read here), but it also has some pretty in-depth and juicy profiles. But, the most tantalizing is about Megan Ellison, the 27-year-old daughter of the third richest man in the U.S. She’s rumored to have been given a bankroll as large as $2 billion from her Dad on her 25th birthday (though her reps deny the figure), with the movie buff using the amount to help bankroll her slate of films.
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.
1. Megan Ellison went around Chastain’s agents and straight to the source for “Zero Dark Thirty.”
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.
2. Paul Thomas Anderson had been discussing a deal for “The Master” with Fox Searchlight at a budget of $18 million when Ellison intervened.
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.
3. Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” will have a $20 million dollar budget and Ellison may be more hands on.
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…
4. Harvey Weinstein, who has distributed several Annapurna films (“Killing Them Softly,” “The Master,” “Lawless”), has become an adversary.
We suppose this was only a matter of time. Apparently the Harvey/Megan relationship started strong but during postproduction on “Lawless” things began to go awry due to “the normal wear and tear of who was going to pay for what extra things,” a source told the magazine (Harvey apparently suggested a new cut of the film to which she agreed). When “The Master” failed to move the needle upon release, things reportedly started to get ugly.
“Harvey told Megan that the film wasn’t doing well because PTA and the actors weren’t doing enough press,” a source told Vanity Fair. “Now, that obviously doesn’t have much to do with it, but Harvey knows two things before he gets up in the morning: Megan thinks PTA is a god, and PTA isn’t going to do more press just because he’s asked. So that makes The Master’s receipts her fault. And she’s 25, so when he tells her that, she believes it. And then he tortures her about it.”
And their battling continued through “Killing Them Softly.” While Ellison wanted to the film to be released before the election (it was slated for September 21st and then bumped to October 19th), it was Harvey who moved it to November 30th. Meanwhile, Ellison refused to let Harvey make any changes to the film and denied him a chance to screen the movie for test audiences. So it’s no surprise that….
5. Ellison reportedly vowed to never work with Weinstein again.
David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper, the director and star of Weinstein’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and the untitled Abscam project that Ellison is producing, apparently tried to broker peace between the two parties. “We did ask her to consider [working with Harvey] in the future, and from there, that’s about her relationship with Harvey,” Russell told the magazine.
So basically, don’t expect to see Harvey distributing Russell’s next effort or any project involving Ellison.
6. Ellison’s the greatest. Ellison’s the worst.
Filmmakers and actors love her. Chastain, Jason Clarke, Bennett Miller, John Hillcoat, Andrew Dominik all speak glowingly of her in the piece. Even a rival producer Charles Roven (“The Dark Knight Rises”) sung her praises for not phoning it in with her wealth and just showing up at premieres. Perhaps one of the best examples of the schism in Hollywood comes from Miller, who has Annapurna producing and funding his next picture “Foxcatcher.” “You’re making yourself an enemy of the state and a target [in Hollywood],” he told her. “And there will be prayers for your failure. But I can help. I will be here.”
Folks who aren’t filmmakers and stars though aren’t huge fans of her lack of ettiquette. “Megan likes to say no,” a film executive is quoted as saying. “She didn’t reply to my e-mail. The most powerful people in Hollywood actually return your e-mails. That’s the way it works here.” An industry veteran is also put-off by her. “Something strikes me as high school about Megan’s approach. She’s funding movies of the cool kids to hang out with the cool kids. With the hoodies and the attitude, it feels too studied.”
Whether or not it’s Ellison learning how to navigate Hollywood, or the actions of someone who doesn’t care about unwritten codes of conduct around town, not everyone has taken a shine to her.
7. Ellison ungraciously backed out of Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects”
Some won’t remember, but last year, before Open Road eventually came on board, Annapurna was set to finance Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects.” In fact, Ellison had agreed to do so and press releases went out announcing the film. You’ll recall we reported that Blake Lively was initially cast in the lead role and that Annapurna was picking up the tab – something that Vanity Fair confirms – but evidently due to Lively’s outrageous salary demands, Ellison got angry and pulled the plug 12 weeks before shooting was supposed to start (we’d heard some of this drama led to Rooney Mara eventually landing the lead role). VF says Ellison handled herself poorly and the “Side Effects” producers also discovered that Ellison hadn’t kept many elements of their deal confidential.
“In my experience, when you’re breaking up with someone, it’s proper form to call them,” Soderbergh is quoted as saying in the piece. “When ‘Moneyball’ blew up [the film, eventually directed by Bennett Miller, was originally Soderbergh’s project], Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal called me and said, ‘We’re shutting the movie down.’ You’re supposed to pick up the phone.”
But even Pascal makes allowances for the not-even-30-year-old heiress. “Don’t be quick to count her out,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re a woman, people judge you a little more harshly. I think that if Megan was a guy people wouldn’t be jumping on her as much.”
It’s certainly very possible. Is Ellison a target or a force to be reckoned with? Is she being judged fairly? Be sure to check out the profile Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue on stands now, take the phone off the hook and dive in. And let us know your thoughts below.