Annapurna’s Stunning Shakeup: What the Hell Is Megan Ellison Doing?

After dropping buzzy films and its production head, the studio needs fall titles "The Sisters" Brothers," "Destroyer," and "Vice" to perform perfectly.
Megan Ellison
Megan Ellison

In the last year, Megan Ellison has moved from respected producer of multiple Oscar contenders to another deep-pocketed Hollywood player who failed to appreciate the hazards of building a distribution company. On Tuesday, a series of news flashes telegraphed a company in trouble.

First, Jay Roach’s untitled movie starring John Lithgow as Fox News chairman and sexual harasser Roger Ailes, which was set to start shooting in just two weeks, is being shopped to other distributors. Canadian financier Bron Studios was set to co-finance the reported $35-million production written by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”). Focus Features is reportedly in talks to acquire the film. Annapurna had just announced casting of Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch; he joins a strong ensemble including Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Kate McKinnon, and Margot Robbie as Megyn Kelly.

Second, it was revealed that, some months ago, Annapurna dropped Lorene Scafaria’s Jennifer Lopez exotic dance movie. STX picked up “The Hustlers at Scores,” adapted from a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Gloria Sanchez Productions.

And third, Ellison’s long-trusted head of production, Chelsea Barnard, is leaving the company. She is the latest in a list of high-profile departures who include former studio executive Marc Weinstock, who built a solid marketing team and closed a distribution partnership with MGM before exiting in June after two years as president; COO Adrian Becker, who lasted four months after leaving a job at Killer Films; and CFO Josh Small, who moved over to Blumhouse.

Either you get along with the mercurial Ellison, daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, or you don’t. But she may be under increased pressure from her father, who has been backing years of Annapurna investment amounting to a reported $200 million.

Kathryn Bigelow, Director/ProducerAnnapurna Pictures presents the World Premiere of 'Detroit', Detroit, USA - 25 Jul 2017
Kathryn Bigelow at the world premiere of “Detroit”Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Annapurna started out releasing films with its “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s $40-million “Detroit” (plus hefty marketing costs), which topped out at $16 million domestic (less than half is returned to the distributor). Ellison backed Bigelow when she refused to trim the film’s assaultive violence. This summer, Annapurna marketing scored an indie hit with Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”

But the company has a slim chance of recouping its investment on its ambitious fall slate, starting off with the $38-million Jacques Audiard western “The Sisters Brothers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Amed. The production built a Spanish town in the mountains for the shoot, but the film has yet to crack $1 million in limited arthouse release. (Annapurna funded about a fifth of the production.)

Like all young distribution start-ups, Annapurna is hemorrhaging money that has yet to return and may never materialize. Ellison thought she was smarter than the distributors of such films as “The Master,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Her,” and could do it better, armed with her excellent taste in filmmakers, ex-Weinstein Co. distribution guru Erik Lomis, and in-house producer Plan B, home to such Oscar-winners as “Moonlight,” “The Big Short” and “12 Years a Slave.” But many in Hollywood agree that Ellison spends too much for films with limited commercial prospects.

Also upcoming is Karyn Kusama’s noir thriller “Destroyer” starring Nicole Kidman. Pushed back to 2019 is Richard Linklater film “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” starring Cate Blanchett.

Cast of If Beale Street Could TalkNYFF 56 U.S. Premiere of "If Beale Street Could Talk", New York, USA - 09 Oct 2018
The cast of “If Beale Street Could Talk” at the NYFF 56 U.S. PremierePatrick Lewis/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Much hope is pinned on Plan B’s $12-million James Baldwin adaptation, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’ well-reviewed follow-up to “Moonlight,” which debuted well at the Toronto Film Festival and played to cheering crowds at the Apollo Theatre during the New York Film Festival Tuesday night. But filmmakers at the event were alarmed by the recent Annapurna news, and speculated about what it could mean.

By far Annapurna’s riskiest gamble to date is Adam McKay’s $60-million biopic “Vice,” starring a bulked-up Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Amy Adams as his wife Lynne, which is slated for wide Christmas release; originally, it was slated for a platform opening.

Annapurna needs the rest of its fall slate to perform flawlessly, or else it could follow in the footsteps of such shuttered would-be studios as Global Road, Relativity, and Broad Green. STX itself isn’t out of the woods, either.

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