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

October 3, 2014

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.