The Young Master Out to Shake Up Hollywood

HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 13: Producer Megan Ellison attends the premiere of Sony Pictures Classics' "Foxcatcher" during AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi at Dolby Theatre on November 13, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
SourceMichael Kovac/Getty

The Young Master Out to Shake Up Hollywood

By Sean Braswell


Because moviegoers cannot subsist on sequels and superhero sagas alone.

By Sean Braswell

Megan Ellison loves to quote Kurt Vonnegut. References to the late American writer crop up all over the 29-year-old film producer’s Twitter feed, and while accepting a Women in Motion award in Cannes earlier this year, he surfaced again. “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable,” she observed, channeling Vonnegut.  “And that’s what I want to be a part of,” she added.

It’s a noble sentiment, but there’s a catch: Namely, in order to play a serious role in the arts in Ellison’s neck of the Hollywoods, you need some serious cash to get a seat at the table, particularly if you are a woman. But since Ellison (daughter of billionaire and fifth-richest man on the planet Larry Ellison) founded Annapurna Pictures, the savvy heiress has invested in the kind of smart, original stories that the Hollywood studios have largely abandoned. Call it youthful exuberance, call it hubris, call it the fruits of inherited wealth, but for all of us who love the movies, Megan Ellison is helping to make going to them far more bearable.

“True terror,” as Vonnegut observes in one of Ellison’s tweets, “is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” Certainly, it often feels like they are already running Hollywood, given the steady diet of superheroes, sequels and teenage-level fare emanating from the movie mecca. You might think that a trust-funded college dropout once described by Vanity Fair as having a “slacker vibe” to go with her “uniform of army boots, denim jeans, and a hoodie” could only make matters worse, but appearances deceive, particularly in Tinseltown. In some ways, Ellison appears quite unruffled by deception. Although often outspoken on Twitter, she guards her privacy closely and rarely grants interviews (including to OZY for this story). What we’ve got is her voice, from social media to Zero Dark Thirty, her 2012 drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden (nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture) to a number of independent films she’s backed — The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), American Hustle (David O. Russell) and Her (Spike Jonze).

Becoming a one-stop shop for Hollywood’s elite directors is not easy, or cheap. Which is where the up to $2 billion that Ellison reportedly received (an amount her representatives deny) from her father on her 25th birthday comes in handy. “I think big business is a terrible thing for the spirit of the country,” Vonnegut once confided in a letter to his publisher, but it has been a great thing for the free-spirited Larry Ellison. The flamboyant Oracle co-founder and CEO otherwise known for adventure, yachts and private jets has conferred a large chunk of his fortune to his two children (Megan’s older brother David is also a USC film school dropout turned producer). The kids were largely raised by their mother, Larry’s third wife, Barbara, after the two divorced when Megan was in diapers. And as Mike Wilson, the author of The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: *God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison, tells OZY, Larry was not exactly a hands-on father when the kids were young: “He didn’t make it to a lot of ballgames or school events.” 

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From left: Writer-director David O. Russell; actors Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams; and producer Megan Ellison at an afterparty for a screening of American Hustle in Los Angeles in 2013.

Source Kevin Winter/Getty

But the Larry tattoo is an easy one to beat, and in Hollywood, “resources merely get you in the door,” says Kim Elsesser, a researcher at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women and the author of Sex and the Office, and “to accomplish what she’s accomplished, she clearly must have talent as well.” Indeed, despite some early small-budget misses like Waking Madison (2010), starring Elisabeth Shue, that went almost straight to DVD, Ellison’s hits speak loudly. Especially when contrasted with other billionaire outsiders, from Howard Hughes to Dodi Fayed, who helped earn their class a reputation in Hollywood as “dumb money,” for struggling, like amateur angel investors in Silicon Valley, to make an impact on the studio system.

And Ellison’s success might, ironically enough, line up to a renaissance in a more democratic kind of filmmaking: Because many studio conglomerates have closed their independent arms in recent years in an effort to focus on blockbusters that can pull in hundreds of millions worldwide, there is a real opportunity for more artistically inclined financiers like Ellison to make their mark … and fill every theater in Brooklyn. Another obvious enough place for Ellison to leave a mark is on the white elephant in Hollywood: gender. To be the Sheryl Sandberg of Hollywood, though, says Alison Trope, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “she has to understand and value change, not to mention recognize both her own privilege and the culture of privilege that has historically driven Hollywood.” 

Ellison’s company Annapurna is named for the Hindu goddess of nourishment, and the increasingly influential producer will no doubt continue her costly battle to nourish audiences with upcoming releases like Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some and Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. “We are what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut once warned, “so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” It took some hustle, some serious money and some playing the part for Megan Ellison to crack Hollywood. So she must now be careful to live up to the part she has written for herself.