Filmmaker of the Year: Megan Ellison

By  · Published on December 30th, 2012

If you salivated over adult dramas and auteur filmmaking in 2012, you have a Hindu Goddess and a 26-year-old film school dropout to thank.

The Hindu Goddess is Annapurna, the “mother who feeds” and the namesake for the film school dropout’s production company, and our filmmaker of the year is Megan Ellison, the Goddess of Nourishment for World Class Directors.

Over the past decade, the big six studios all but gave up on adult dramas, period pieces without capes and anything that cost more than ten but less than one-hundred million dollars. Movie writers love to pontificate on whether something controversial like Rosemary’s Baby could get made today (Friday nights at the bar get heated), but there’s an even shorter conversation about something like Regarding Henry or Witness — mature stories that have no real chance at the studio system of 2012. Fortunately, that need is being filled in part by Ellison and her massive personal fortune.

Which is probably why, when I asked editors for three major film websites to weigh in on what would never be the same after 2012, all of them wanted to talk about Ellison. Sure, the digital takeover was big; crowdsourcing was a game-changer; but it was Ellison’s name on everyone’s lips.

So what exactly do we have to thank her for?

The Anti-Paris Hilton

Her new Annapurna Pictures banner is the company behind new violent work from Andrew Dominik, a John Hillcoat prohibition era drama, the movie version of Osama Bin Laden’s death and, of course, the masterful film from Paul Thomas Anderson that got cinephiles drooling. That’s a hell of an inaugural year, especially considering her earlier stumbles.

In 2010, Ellison’s self-made introduction into the movie world came to fruition with the video release of Waking Madison, a film she financed on the back of a personal check after contacting indie director Katherine Brooks and setting up a collaboration a few years earlier. It wasn’t an illustrious coming-out party. Her next projects – a Colin Firth flick that barely made it into the festival circuit, let alone out of it, and the Megan Fox/Mickey Rourke-led unintentional laugh fest called Passion Play – didn’t fare any better.

Then, as happens to all of us, she came into a sickeningly large amount of money from her father, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. It’s unclear exactly how much it was, but the house she purchased to become the Annapurna HQ cost a tidy $13.8m, if that’s any indication. It was also enough to rescue The Wettest County in the World (which would become Lawless) and to offer filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow (who refuses to work inside the mainstream system) a chance to make movies that legitimately might not have been made without Ellison’s coin purse and vision.

A Different Criterion

Instead of watching her fortune dwindle or using it to get the open-legged spotlight, Ellison has become a modern Medici, letting an outside-the-system sensibility be her guide. What’s impressive about Ellison is exactly what some people get wrong about her. The gut reaction might be to dismiss her as a hobbyist (like so many others who attempt to crash the Hollywood party), but through experience and the mentorship of Creative Artists Agency reps Roeg Sutherland and Micah Green, she’s learned enough to align herself with some heavyweights. Her work with Dominik and Anderson wasn’t a fluke; she’s producing their next films as well.

While some have criticized her for pouring larger budgets into art house fare, it’s precisely that she’s giving big checks to filmmakers with vision despite the small promise of financial return that makes her contribution so profound. While studios gave up on innovation over the past decade, and specifically stopped making mid-budget adult fare, Ellison is pumping new life into a world that some film fans are starving for even as most wolf down the same studio menu recipe every Friday.

It’s true that The Master and Killing Them Softly didn’t deliver financially, but they did so artistically, and her slate (led by Zero Dark Thirty) is canvasing awards season. It would be a shame to judge her output by the bottom line, but even on that front, there’s a solid chance of her success through diversity and prestige. She’s placed her money where her faith is, and from the look of it, it’s going to pay off. That most likely baffles the more conservative-minded of the establishment. Yet another reason to start cutting up ticker tape for the young producer.

Living in Dreams

Little is known about her as she avoids interviews. Her twitter feed is a back-and-forth of positive press for her films and inspirational quotations from filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin (“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself”) and renowned thinkers like Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?”). It’s easy to focus on the romanticism of her reclusive nature, but her true contributions this year have been far more concrete. Her emergence this year is powerful because she, instead of falling on her face, has succeeded in financing some creatively daring work that’s gained interest and is about to pick up a lot of gold. She’s certainly not alone, but she’s undeniably the catalyst for an industry disrupting model – using her wealth to protect the arts in a bold, unique, intimate way. Giving money to projects that others won’t.

Beyond that, she represents a great promise for future work. Annapurna is currently prepping Dominik’s Naomi Watts-starring Marilyn Monroe picture Blonde, and David O. Russell’s Abscam/FBI sting movie; they’re filming Moneyball director Bennett Miller’s next; and they’re in post on new work from Spike Jonze while preparing to distribute Wong Kar Wai’s long-anticipated Ip Man movie The Grandmaster.

Add to that pile:

and you get an idea of where the future of Annapurna is headed. More money to dramas with a heady mix of commercially safe fare (including a potential tentpole).

With all great experiments, there is a risk of failure. Megan Ellison knows that because Charlie Chaplin knew it. She’s entered into the most expensive art form with gusto, a comically large checkbook and good taste. There’s an opportunity here. It might be a fleeting one, and the fates may have to be bribed to let it be grasped, but after proving her salt in 2012, Ellison is poised to build a new production empire using the bricks discarded by established houses that could use some renovation. She is a lung-full of fresh air who has delivered reels to fans instead of empty developmental promises.

So if you’re glad you got new movies from Dominik, Bigelow and Hillcoat; if you’re beside yourself that The Master is a real thing that you can watch as often as you like; if you’re excited to see more auteur work with a dash of naked time-traveling robots, please raise a glass with me in thanking and celebrating Megan Ellison, our 2012 Filmmaker of the Year.

Sources: NY Times, LA Times, Box Office Mojo

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.