Megan Ellison

Top Indie Producers Shaking Up Hollywood

To an outside observer looking in, it would appear that the film industry of late is comprised solely of gigantic corporate entities churning out endless, CGI-laden blockbusters.

And anyone would be forgiven for thinking that. Alongside the hundred-million-dollar budgets that go into such movies, an almost equal amount is spent in the run up to release making sure virtually every person on the planet knows about them.

But get away from all the noise and you’ll come across some extraordinary independent producers that are creating superb work despite being overshadowed by the massive industry players. If you’re in (or have recently graduated from) producing school and want a little inspiration from those who are going against the grain, read on!

Indie Producers Hollywood Should Be Watching

Since the term ‘indie’ can be a little blurry when it comes to movie production, for the purpose of clarity we’re going with the widely-accepted definition that an indie production company doesn’t have big distribution contracts, tends to operate with a core crew of ten people or less, and generally finances movies with budgets below the $1 million mark (though some team up with other studios to bring big projects to life).

Gilbert Films

While the Los Angeles-based Gilbert Films only has two people at its helm, those two producers—the eponymous Gary Gilbert and Jordan Horrowitz—have plenty of provenance between them. Gilbert himself had early success with the indie breakout Garden State (for which he won an Inde­pen­dent Spirit Award for Best First Feature) and Horrowitz joined him to put his decade of filmmaking experience to work as producer on the multiple award-winning The Kids Are Alright.

Gilbert Films is going from strength to strength, but the duo is clearly keen to put quality before expansion, selecting projects that are both artistic and commercially viable. If you want an example of an indie production company that started off strong and kept getting better, this is it.

Red Crown Productions

From L.A to New York, we now move to the indie powerhouse Red Crown Productions… although there is an interesting tie-in with Gilbert Films, too.

Founded in 2010 by Daniela Lundberg and Dan Crown, the former co-produced The Kids Are Alright alongside the Gilbert duo above (her first big Sundance success after numerous years at the festival.) Dan Crown was a former theatre owner who sold up the family business to partner with Lundberg—of the partnership, Crown stated that they approach productions from dramatically different perspectives, while Lundberg refers to Crown as the company’s “godfather and true partner to me.”

EFO Films

Founded by Randall Emmett and George Furla (and later merging with Oasis Ventures) way back in 1998, EFO is an indie production company that has really gone the distance. Despite its small team size and conservative budgeting, since its inception the company has gone on to create over 80 films which, collectively, have grossed a little over a billion dollars at the box office.

Having worked closely with Mark Wahlberg on many titles and produced a number of movies featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (including Righteous Kill which co-starred them both), even more intriguing is that EFO has been licensed to produce the first ever movies based around the Monopoly and Hungry Hungry Hippos board games…

BCDF Pictures

As far as quirky backstories go, BCDF takes the cake.

The Dal Farra brothers originally worked in biochemistry before selling their biotech firm, hooking up with a cardiologist, then purchasing a 35-acre farm from which to operate their private equity film financing outfit. Sounds strange on paper, but in practice it has paid off—since 2010, the trio have had a string of Sundance hits including Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, Higher Ground, and Bachelorette.

Annapurna Pictures

Megan Ellison is in a unique position in the world of independent film production: money is no object to her.

The daughter of a billionaire, Ellison has been able to approach film financing with an indie heart but with none of the constraint, and it’s a killer combination that she’s leveraging to its fullest extent. How killer are we talking? Consider that in just a few years, her company has produced Her, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Hustle, three of the most daringly brilliant movies of the early 2010s.

It’s little wonder that she was listed in Time‘s Most Influential People last year, and is definitely among our own indie producers we’ll be keenly following over the next year. Know of any other great indie production powerhouses we should be checking out? Don’t hesitate to leave your hat-tip in the comments below… we’ll see you down there!


Most Successful Female Producers In Hollywood

The film industry is notoriously male dominated, to such an extent that only 25% of Hollywood producers are female. Other professions within Hollywood are even less balanced, as we observed when we studied gender inequality in film last year.

While things are slowly improving with a few institutions trying to redress the balance (our own producing school is actively dedicated to this), sadly there still isn’t a gigantic pool of female producers at the upper echelons to list. That said, the names below are more than worthy of mention.

We’re not going to put the following list in ranked order, nor are we going to rate their success simply in terms of either critical or commercial performance. As far as we’re concerned, the work of any female producer in this (currently) gender biased industry should be equally celebrated, but the following five have had particularly notable careers to date.

Emma Thomas

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman, and arguably the same is true of great movie projects and great producers.

We’ve previously covered the cinematic powerhouse that is Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, but what we didn’t have space to address in that post is the woman who brings their vision to life. Given the gigantic scale of the duo’s recent outings (namely Interstellar, Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy), this is no small feat, but Nolan’s spouse, Emma Thomas, has consistently risen to the challenge.

While Thomas remains quiet about her own role in the filmmaking process (and Nolan never speaks of family life or personal relations), she has never dropped the ball when it came to commanding a budget of hundreds of millions and turning it into a return of billions. Along with the exemplary critical reception her work has garnered, there are very few producers – not just those of the female persuasion — that can be seen as having the same level of success as Thomas.

Darla K. Anderson

To date, the only Pixar animated feature created under the helm of a female director is Brave. Given that the Scottish anti-princess tale was widely applauded for its depth and positive feminist message, hopefully the studio will address the gender imbalance going forward.

To the general audience hers may not be a household name (other than the Finding Nemo character which was named after her in retaliation for a practical joke), but lurking amongst Pixar’s animation team is the very underrated female producer Darla K. Anderson, who has produced some of the most recognizable titles in the Pixar filmography: A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Cars and the third instalment in the Toy Story franchise.

In fact, Anderson has the highest average movie gross in her role as a producer (of any genre) at $221 million per flick (according to Guinness World Records in 2008), and the combined gross of the four aforementioned movies stands at well over $2 billion. While this was mainly thanks to the success of Toy Story 3, given how undeniably brilliant it was, we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Megan Ellison

Ellison has only been on the producing scene since 2010, but has already chalked up numerous Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations and landed herself on Time’s 2014 list of Most Influential People in the World.

A lot of Ellison’s appeal is for her unflinching bravery when it comes to personally financing and producing projects in which lesser mortals would be afraid to invest, before turning them into multi-million grossing Oscar magnets. Her recent films include Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Her, (2013) and American Hustle (also 2013) are superb examples of this.

Next up, Ellison will be producing a film based on the life of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. She also managed to impressively outbid Lionsgate for the rights to the next Terminator reboot.

Nina Jacobson

There are few commodities as hot as young adult literature adaptions right now, and Jacobson was pretty much the first to both kickstart and capitalize on the trend.

Following lengthy and successful stints at Universal, Dreamworks and Disney (notably working on M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier movies before parting ways under creative differences) Jacobson went on to set up her own production company, Color Force, in 2007. Solely under her own steam, Jacobson’s career entered into a new era adapting books into huge franchises. The biggest among them is the global smash Hunger Gameswith that series soon coming to a close, all eyes are on Jacobson to see where she’ll go from such great heights.

Kathleen Kennedy

Kennedy initially started out as Steven Spielberg’s secretary, but it wasn’t destined to be her line of work — she was, by all reports, an atrocious typist.

The only reason she kept her job was thanks to the sporadic production input she gave. Spielberg saw great worth in these nuggets of inspiration, and hired her as an associate producer for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It was a decision that went on to pay dividends for Lucas, and indeed the wider industry. Kennedy co-founded Amblin Entertainmenta production company with a filmography no one-line summary could do justiceand personally had a hand in producing some of the most famous flicks in family enterntaiment (E.T, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Jurrasic Park, Hook) as well as some major war-time heavy hitters such as Schindler’s List, War Horse, Munich, and Persepolis.

With over 120 Academy Award nominations, 25 wins and over $11 billion in gross box office takings, she’s already one of the most successful female producers in Hollywood, but her next project is perhaps the biggest job (by any measure) a producer could be tasked with.

As the president of LucasFilm, she has been entrusted to produce the next Star Wars movie…

… no pressure, Kathleen.

A Tale Of Two Ellisons: The New Generation Of Movie Producers

When your father’s a billionaire, you can pretty much spend tons of money on anything you please and do anything you want, whether it’s racing megayachts, collecting classic sports cars, or partying every day on beachfront mansions. The son and daughter of wealthy tech mogul Larry Ellison, David and Megan, are a little different. Like a lot of us, the Ellison siblings are huge movie buffs. Unlike a lot of us, they’re doing what those of us with lighter wallets always dreamed we could do — they’re making the movies they want to see in the theater.

Rather than constantly scrolling through the New Releases on Netflix, they finance and produce what they’d like to watch from the ground up. And the Ellisons don’t just live out every cinephile’s fantasy — it turns out they’re also really good at it. Their hobby has become their career and both are generating millions in box office revenue. What’s most fascinating about David and Megan Ellison, however, is that they work completely independent of each other, through their own separate production companies, and each has their own distinct taste, and consequently their own distinct footprints on Hollywood.

David Ellison, 31, attended the University of South California for some time while also acting in a small handful of roles, including parts in Flyboys and The Chumscrubber, and the TNT drama Leverage. After forming his own production company, Skydance Productions, and partnering with Paramount Pictures, he started off his career with a bang, financing the Joel and Ethan Coen western remake, True Grit, a Best Picture nominee lavished with nine other Oscar nods.

With the exception of the Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand comedy The Guilt Trip, David and Skydance’s following films double downed on the macho action True Grit deconstructed. David Ellison, a pilot and thrillseeker, wanted movies brimming with thrills, and found a like-minded collaborator in Tom Cruise. Another trait of David’s became to finance sequels to movies he loved or grew up watching as a kid. His second feature combined all of these elements to monumental success with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. With that massive hit under his belt, David was free to get as epic as he felt fit, and released Jack Reacher, World War Z, and the sequels G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit all within the span of two years.

David Ellison and Skydance have also found success on the small screen, producing the atom-bomb origin drama Manhattan for television and currently developing a series for Netflix, Grace & Frankie, starring legendary actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

Sci-fi blockbusters have become one of Ellison’s specialties, and it’s no surprise two movies slated for development by Skydance are titled Geostorm and Star Blazers. David also continues to fund sequels to his favorites, producing a new Schwarzenegger Terminator trilogy, Mission: Impossible 5, as well as a passion project Ellison’s been developing with Tom Cruise for years: Top Gun 2. Though original Top Gun director Tony Scott was involved early on before his untimely death, Ellison and Cruise hope to have the movie hit theaters sometime in the next few years, focusing on the automated drones dominating twenty-first century battlefields.

Megan Ellison, 28, only spent a year at USC’s film school, but has shown a knack for producing high-quality critic-friendly cinema. Just a year after her brother formed Skydance, Megan created her own production company, Annapurna Pictures. In the Hindu faith, Annapurna is a goddess known for her boundless maternal nurturing. The name turned out to be extremely apt for Megan’s company, as she became known for using her money to bankroll projects that couldn’t find support anywhere else.

After producing a few indie films she felt passionately for, Ellison found success with her brother by co-producing True Grit, but it was with Annapurna that Megan found her calling as the savior of high-risk artistic projects unable to find financing anywhere else in Hollywood. One such infamous project was Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-gestating take on scientology, The Master. Despite Anderson’s pedigree, the subject was too taboo to find a studio. Despite her brother’s close relationship to scientology poster boy Tom Cruise, Megan signed on to release The Master, which earned three Academy Award nominations for its actors, including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who gave one of his last great performances.

Showing no fear of controversy, Ellison followed The Master with Bin Laden drama Zero Dark Thirty, another Best Picture contender. She also directed her money toward the distinct voices of auteurs like Andrew Dominik, Harmony Korine, and Wong Kar-wai, financing their films Killing Them Softly, Spring Breakers, and The Grandmaster, respectively.

In 2014, Ellison made history by becoming the first woman and fourth person ever to earn two Best Picture nods in the same year by producing both Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle.

Since then, Megan Ellison has produced Bennett Miller’s Palme d’Or contender The Foxcatcher and continues to fund the projects of visionary filmmakers, with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s all-star western The Revenant slated for release in 2015. She’s also just signed on to produce Richard Linklater’s followup to Boyhood, the baseball comedy That’s What I’m Talking About.

Neither Megan nor David can be pigeonholed as certain types of movie producers, however. David and Skydance recently announced their funding of Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait directorial effort Africa, while Megan has adult animated comedy Sausage Party in production, with Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill as its talking-meat leads.

Megan also raised eyebrows in 2011 when she snapped up the rights to the Terminator franchise. While many considered this a shrewd business move, it seemed that Megan wanted to bring her trademark integrity to the blockbuster property, approaching James Cameron to return to work on his cyborg creation. For reasons unknown though, in 2014 Megan Ellison opted out of releasing the films, handing the reins to, of all people, her brother David. While it’s hard to say how the change from sister to brother will affect the development of the new Terminator trilogy, it might be a sign that soon after the transition, the first film’s title changed from Genesis to the more ridiculed Genisys. David may seem to be shooting for his sister’s standard though, as he has had several more meetings with Cameron to help bring the franchise back to its innovative roots.

David and Megan are still incredibly young for Hollywood executives, and have decades ahead of them in the movie business. With so much time, it’s no doubt their horizons will expand, their trajectories veering toward unforeseen directions. Who knows what genres or media they may tackle next? It will be harder to succinctly describe a David-type of movie or a Megan-type of movie, and that experimentation can only push filmmaking forward. It’s rare for so much money and so much passion to come together in such a tangibly meaningful way and the industry is lucky for either Ellison, let alone both. As more years and projects come to pass, the interesting story of the Ellisons may just become a defining chapter in the history of cinema.