A throng of Hollywood elite in a tent on the freezing beach gave a standing ovation when “If Beale Street Could Talk” won the best feature prize at the Independent Spirit Awards in February.
Barry Jenkins also took directing honors for the film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s classic novel that was produced by Annapurna and Plan B.
Looking over the rows of boldface names, including Timothée Chalamet and Glenn Close, Jenkins singled out his absent benefactor, who was at home stricken with the flu: “Megan Ellison!” he exclaimed. “Financiers do not put their money behind black authors. Thank you for your money, my dear. James Baldwin thanks you.”
Jenkins is not alone in heaping praise on Ellison, who is known in the creative community as someone who consistently backs auteur directors, among them Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell, making sizable investments in risky movies that major studios frequently shun.
But many industry observers and insiders are hesitant to spray champagne for Annapurna Pictures, whose shaky financial health gets overshadowed by all the accolades.
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With most of its awards hopefuls fetching zero trophies this season, the company is now reaping significant losses and looking to a future reliant on a joint distribution deal with MGM, rebranded in February as United Artists Releasing.
Take “Beale Street.” Ellison is looking at a write-down of between $8 million and $10 million on a movie that was critically beloved but little seen, an individual familiar with the release told Variety. Compounding the situation is “Vice,” Ellison’s other big awards bet that cost around $65 million and scored eight Oscar nominations, including one for Christian Bale’s turn as Dick Cheney. Industry figures estimate that “Vice” will lose $20 million, though an individual familiar with Annapurna pegged the number at closer to $15 million. Nicole Kidman’s compelling but hit-and-miss cop drama “Destroyer” grossed only $1.5 million domestically and will represent a $7 million loss, another insider said.
These numbers are par for the course at Annapurna. Since 2016, when the company moved into distributing and marketing its movies as opposed to strictly producing them, it has endured major financial setbacks under a strategy to pridefully spend what it takes to get visionaries seen and heard. Of the eight films it has released since 2017, only one, “Sorry to Bother You,” is expected to be minimally profitable, another insider said.
The company declined to make Ellison or other executives available for interview for this story. Ellison, however, did respond to the story on Tuesday, tweeting at Variety‘s co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller. “come on @Variety_Claudia — nice way of supporting women,” she wrote. “I have done good things for this industry and you want me in it. Btw my money and I look more like this… and my dad thinks I’m dope as f—.” She included a gif of Beyonce being showered by dollars.
Annapurna is the latest in a long line of indie studios whose grand ambitions have collided with the brutal economic realities of the business. Moviemaking is capital intensive and risky, and the history of Hollywood is littered with the corpses of disruptive studios that collapsed when the hits dried up. Relativity Studios, Broad Green Entertainment and Global Road are just a few of the recent players to have flamed out. Given Ellison’s family money, Annapurna has had much more of a financial cushion than other indies. Her brother, David Ellison, enjoys the same luxury with his company Skydance Media. But their billionaire father, Larry Ellison, has made it clear that he’s tired of Annapurna losing money and has brought in financial advisers to help guide his daughter.
“If you’re going to do what Annapurna wants to do, you have to hit every time,” says Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It’s wonderful to be a patron of the arts, and there is a foothold for these adult dramas in the market, but you can’t ever miss.”
The joint venture with MGM, forged in 2017, has not taken a rosy path. Despite dipping into Annapurna’s deep pockets to roll out the upcoming 25th installment in the James Bond spy series, per the initial agreement Annapurna would not be allowed to flash a title card bearing its logo before the movie’s opening credits. The squabbling got so granular that the then MGM communications chief would bark at journalists for including Annapurna in stories about the film, which is coming in 2020 from director Cary Fukunaga.
Under the expanded United Artists deal, the kumbayas are audible. An equitable board consisting of Ellison and her business and legal affairs chief, Chris Corabi, as well as MGM chief operating officer Chris Brearton and Motion Picture Group president Jon Glickman, jointly leads the company. The realignment has effectively sent Ellison’s core movie-releasing team (including former longtime Harvey Weinstein distribution guru Erik Lomis and feature publicity executive Adriene Bowles) to work for UA. The move helps reduce Annapurna’s bloated overhead but raises questions about its long-term viability.
Prior to the joint venture with MGM, Ellison wanted to transform Annapurna into a full-fledged studio, creating a company that not only produced movies but oversaw all aspects of their release, from the creation of the posters to the deals for television rights. As the flops mounted, the company also had to contend with the exodus of key executives over the past year, including president Marc Weinstock and production chief Chelsea Barnard. Ellison moved to right the ship by elevating TV head Sue Naegle to chief content officer and naming Ivana Lombardi to Barnard’s post.
At the height of Annapurna’s perceived misfortunes, several buyers considered offers on its film library. One such prospective purchaser was brother David, according to two individuals with knowledge of the family. Megan Ellison would not entertain such a proposal, especially because Skydance has drawn the ire of many in Hollywood for hiring John Lasseter, said one of the insiders. The former Pixar guru who was forced out of his job amid accusations of sexual harassment.
Despite its waning financial fortunes, Annapurna just premiered the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, “Booksmart,” at SXSW. The low-budget film underscores the company’s goal to boost gender equality among directors, said one insider familiar with the project.
Ellison is also pushing into the animation space and partnering with stop-motion studio Laika on the sasquatch tale “Missing Link.” In the fall, the studio will release (under the UA banner) Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” starring Cate Blanchett; the film underwent a significant reshoot last year.
Development is also still active at the company. As part of its production pact with Brad Pitt’s Plan B, Annapurna has optioned the rights to the soapy noir novel “The Silent Patient.” Naegle will develop the book into a feature film with Plan B producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.
The movie follows a famous London artist who inexplicably shoots her fashion-photographer husband five times, then falls mute. It’s a far cry from arty collaborations like “Beale Street” and “Vice.”
“Sounds like it’ll make some money,” said one top film sales agent.
For Ellison and Annapurna, turning a profit would be a pretty novel concept.