Perhaps the least interesting thing about Megan Ellison, Gigi Pritzker and Molly Smith is that these game-changing film financiers happen to be the scions of three of America’s wealthiest families — a status that’s more Trivial Pursuit factoid than it is relevant to their dramatic impact on the current indie movie scene. Indeed, there is a long history of private-sector capitalists who gambled on the film business, from Howard Hughes in the 1940s to the more recent likes of industrialist Steven Rales and fashion magnate Sidney Kimmel — flirtations of varying lengths and intensity, but ultimately, in almost every case, a passing fancy.
What sets Ellison, Pritzker and Smith apart is that the movie business is their business, as well as their all-consuming passion. Financiers they may be, but they’re also creative, hands-on producers with dirt under their fingernails, many notches in their belts, and a keen understanding of the art and commerce of making movies. By keeping overhead low and cultivating relationships with A-list actors and directors seeking to flex their creative muscles, they’ve revitalized a space — the midbudget, adult-skewing drama — that the studios have largely abandoned. Many of the films they’ve bankrolled might otherwise never have seen the light of day.
So far, the gamble seems to be paying off. Since 2009, movies produced, exec-produced and/or financed by these three women have taken in more than $1.5 billion at the worldwide B.O., and racked up an impressive 39 Oscar noms. As their latest releases — “Foxcatcher” (Ellison), “Rosewater” (Pritzker) and “The Good Lie” (Smith) — head into the awards season, the future seems promising.
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“You think about your career path, and you hear stories about people who always knew what they were going to do in life,” says Pritzker, whose decade-old OddLot Entertainment counts Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Sundance hit “The Way Way Back” among its credits. “Mine feels like a series of amazingly bizarre happenstances and twists,” she adds.
The youngest of five children born to Jay Pritzker, founder of the Hyatt hotel chain, Pritzker, 52, grew up loving movies (often going to two a day on weekends with her dad). But she never thought about a career in the biz until, after graduating from Stanford with a BA in anthropology, she attended a small film school on the outskirts of Santa Fe.
“There were eight of us,” she recalls. “We had to learn how to load every kind of magazine, how to work a Moviola and a Steenbeck. It was physical production stuff, and I just loved it. The concept was that you’d do that for a year, and then go to Temple University and get your masters in visual anthropology. Except I forgot the second part. ”
Pritzker headed instead to New York and, together with friend (and eventual OddLot co-founder) Deborah Del Prete, started a small production company for commercials, musicvideos and industrial films. It was, says Pritzker, a second film school, and also a very successful business enterprise — so much so that, by 1989, she was ready to try her hand at producing an indie feature, “Simple Justice,” with Del Petre directing.
Around that time, Jay, impressed by his daughter’s acumen, offered her a post in the family business. Pritzker said thanks, but no thanks. “It took a while for him to understand,” she says. “For him, business was what was fun and exciting. But for me, the storytelling and filmmaking process were what was interesting.”
Today, Pritzker (who ranks No. 260 on the Forbes 400 list, after inheriting a sizable chunk of her father’s fortune in 1999) says she’s interested in building a mixed portfolio that includes not only OddLot but theater production company Relevant Theatricals, partial ownership of foreign sales firm Sierra/Affinity, and a stake in Robert Simonds’ new studio. That diversity of interests is reflected in OddLot’s slate, which ranges from arthouse fare like “Drive” and “Rosewater” to YA sci-fi adaptation “Ender’s Game” and forthcoming Johnny Depp comedy “Mortdecai.”
The through line, Pritzker says, is stories that have weight to them. “It’s about the script, the story, the filmmaker, and the team that’s bringing it forward.”
Jon Stewart notes Pritzker’s dedicated presence throughout the “Rosewater” shoot, his feature debut. “She was always incredibly supportive,” he says. “Anytime you’re in 100-degree weather in the middle of Jordan, in the summer, during Ramadan, and your financier is standing right behind you by the kerosene generator, you know that they’re involved.”
Pritzker, who spent many years as a line producer, insists she’ll take a producer credit only when she feels she’s “been instrumental every step of the way” on a project. “I love getting deep in the weeds when it’s a project that benefits from having me deep in the weeds,” she says.
Pritzker wouldn’t confirm reports of her company’s rumored involvement in “Manchester-by-the-Sea,” a new film by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. However, when asked if, hypothetically, she would have any hesitation about working with a filmmaker who supposedly caused a nightmare situation for his producers on his previous directing effort (the years-in-the-editing-room “Margaret”), she didn’t hesitate.
“Hypothetically, somebody in that situation would have to be very confident in their own ability, and the ability of the team around them, to help that director express himself in a way that’s productive for everybody. We’re really good at that.”
Unlike Pritzker and Ellison, Memphis native Smith, 33, can claim to be a second-generation producer — sort of. Back in 1997, her father, FedEx founder, chairman, president and CEO Fred Smith (estimated net worth: $2.3 billion) received a business plan from a couple of Princeton grads who dreamed of starting their own film company. Smith liked what he saw, and became the principal investor in Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove’s Alcon Entertainment — the independent financing and production outfit whose longterm output deal with Warner Bros. has yielded such critical and popular successes as “The Blind Side,” “Insomnia” and “Prisoners.”
A movie buff as a kid, at 17, Molly (one of 10 Smith children) already had her sights set on NYU film school when Alcon opened its doors. But her father’s new business venture gave her a chance to enrich her education by spending her summer breaks working as a PA on some of Alcon’s earliest productions, including the 2001 drama “The Affair of the Necklace.” It was there that she met actress Hilary Swank, with whom she would go on to form the production company 2S Films. Their initial venture, “P.S. I Love You” (2007), financed by Alcon, earned Smith her first full producing credit, and grossed $157 million worldwide.
“(Molly) is someone who could have easily slipped into being a producer from the beginning,” Swank says. “But she wanted to learn the foundations of the business, and she started by getting people coffee. She paid her dues, she learned the business inside and out, and she has a work ethic like nobody I know.”
In the wake of “The Blind Side,” which she executive produced, Smith began talking to Johnson and Kosove about starting an indie division at Alcon — an idea that blossomed into Black Label Media, Smith’s private-equity film-financing outfit, whose first production, “The Good Lie,” premiered at this year’s Toronto Film Fest. A $15 million co-production with Alcon and Imagine Entertainment (where screenwriter Margaret Nagle’s script was developed), the Sudanese refugee drama, which opened Oct. 3, is, per Smith, a prototype of what she hopes will become the Black Label brand.
“This is a movie that’s half art film, half commercial, which is probably why no one touched it for 10 years,” she says, noting that some Toronto audiences were surprised to discover that the picture’s ostensible star, Reese Witherspoon, doesn’t appear until past the 30-minute mark. “It’s a hard movie to put in a box. But it had all the themes we love, and it was just a beautifully written screenplay that we felt we could make for a price.”
By “we,” Smith means herself and her two business partners, identical twins Thad and Trent Luckinbill, the former a veteran TV and movie actor (he can be seen as Witherspoon’s friend-with-benefits in “The Good Lie”); the latter a lawyer with a private-equity background. Together, the trio spent the better part of two years developing a business plan for Black Label before reaching out to potential investors and building their own film fund. “It was right when ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Black Swan’ kind of brought indie cinema back in a way, from a financier’s perspective,” says Smith, noting that she and her partners studied not only the Alcon model, but other upstarts like Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear Pictures.
But in its first year of operation, Black Label has dramatically picked up the pace. In addition to “The Good Lie,” the company invested in summer indie hit “Begin Again”; wrapped production on “Sicario,” a CIA thriller with Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin from director Denis Villeneuve (set for release from Lionsgate in 2015); and last month started shooting Wall Street drama “Demolition” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
“You’re not dealing with a corporation,” says Villeneuve, echoing the sentiments of many directors who’ve turned to producer-financiers like Smith in lieu of studio financing. “You’re not dealing with all those layers of decisions. You’re not dealing with people who are afraid. You’re dealing with one person. I have direct contact with Molly. When I have a problem, I can call her, I can email her. Making movies is all about relationships, and this is a case where less is more.”
The most prolific of this new wave of super producers, Ellison is also the youngest, the wealthiest (dad Larry Ellison ranks third on the Forbes 400 list) and the most elusive, maintaining a wall of media silence.
Yet Ellison is far from a recluse. She has become a familiar presence at film festivals from Cannes to Toronto, and throughout awards season, even participating in the occasional press conference or Q&A session to promote her films. But when it comes to interviews, the 28-year-old clearly prefers to let her work speak for itself — which it does, loudly. Since earning an executive producer credit on the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” in 2010 (co-financed by her older brother David Ellison’s Skydance Prods.), the younger Ellison sibling has fully or partially financed films by a who’s-who of boundary-pushing alt-Hollywood auteurs, including Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”), Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”), Spike Jonze (“Her”), Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) and David O. Russell (“American Hustle”). And unlike Pritzker and Smith, Ellison is believed to largely finance her films with her own money — a trust fund variously reported as being between $1 billion and $2 billion, gifted to her by her father on her 25th birthday.
Collectively, those movies have given Ellison one of the most distinctive brands in the business — one as notable, in its way, as Jerry Bruckheimer’s action extravaganzas. Only instead of a dramatic lightning bolt streaking down from a menacing sky, the logo for Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is a glowing letter “A,” artfully degraded to look as though its source were a worn-out VHS tape. It’s the perfectly retro touch for a producer who, like so many of the filmmakers she’s cultivated, clearly cherishes the New Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And if “American Hustle,” with its $251 million worldwide gross, has been her only runaway hit so far, Ellison is betting that modest returns on modest investments (like the $133 million earned by the reportedly $45 million “Zero Dark Thirty”) will keep her in business for a long time to come.
“To have that point of view as a financier requires big risks,” observes Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who praises Ellison’s personal involvement in every aspect of a film’s production and release — including a key decision on “Foxcatcher,” which SPC is distributing: Ellison opted to postpone the movie’s release by an entire year to give director Miller more time in the editing room.
“Her idea is to make a company that filmmakers want to be at, not just because she’s funding these movies, but because of the philosophy of the company, and the people who work there,” says Jonze, who edited “Her” in one of the group of Hollywood Hills homes Ellison has converted into Annapurna’s decidedly non-corporate headquarters. “Normally, the idea of the financier coming by the editing room all the time isn’t very comforting,” he adds. “But with Megan, if she’d be walking up to work from her house, I’d get my feelings hurt if she didn’t stop in and say hi.”
Ellison was the only movie producer to land a spot on Time magazine’s 2014 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, grouped in the Pioneers category alongside the likes of Edward Snowden and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
“Both as a viewer and as a practitioner in the business, I’m grateful to Megan Ellison for these filmmakers and films she supports, because they are the highest quality of what film culture is about,” Barker says. “These are films that are for the ages — they’re great works of art as well as films that will ultimately make their money back. I really think the future of quality film relies on people like her.”