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The Conversation: Producer Megan Ellison

Producer Megan Ellison quickly ascended the ranks as of the most notable and recognizable US film producers over the last decade, working with a number of notable auteurs on the kind of risky projects most studios steer clear of. Daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corporation, she began producing in the late 2000s, but her first collaborations (Katherine Brooks’ Waking Madison, Mitch Glazer’s Passion Play and John Doyle’s Main Street) all premiered at film festivals to hushed fanfare. But her break as producer came with the Coen Bros.’ 2010 remake of True Grit. Founding her famed studio Annapurna Pictures in 2011, Ellison has since become a major player in the increasingly diminished pen of US auteur based studio projects.

2012 was the year where Ellison’s risks really paid off, landing John Hillcoat’s Lawless and Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly in Cannes competition slots, taking Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (which picked up Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix) and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to Venice, and netting an Oscar nod for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The following year, Ellison became the first woman (and fourth person) to receive two Academy Award nominations for Best Picture in the same year with Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle.

In 2014, Ellison returned to Cannes with Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (which nabbed Best Director), and 2015 would see her return to work with David O. Russell on Joy and take a brief turn to franchise material with Terminator Genisys. 2016 was a more fruitful year, beginning with Todd Solondz’s Weiner Dog, the sexually explicit food cartoon Sausage Party, the sophomore film from Ana Lily Amirpour with The Bad Batch (which premiered at Venice) and the latest titles from Mike Mills (20th Century Women) and Richard Linklater (Everybody Wants Some!!).

2017 proves to be Annapurna and Ellison’s most anticipated year since 2012, however, thanks to a quartet of auteur helmed projects sure to be awards contenders by the end of the year. Reuniting with Paul Thomas Anderson for an untitled new project starring Daniel Day Lewis (currently filming), we expect this item to land in Venice. As for Cannes, Ellison has a trio of possibilities in contention. Produced by Annapurna, Nash Edgerton’s untitled thriller (once known as American Express) starring Charlize Theron might take a competition slot (seeing as Edgerton’s shorts premiered at the festival). Also, Theron is the type of red carpet attraction Thierry Fremaux seems to gravitate towards (which might be one of several reasons for last year’s The Last Face securing an unwarranted competition slot).

More assured, should it be ready in time, is the latest from Kathryn Bigelow (last in competition back in 2008 with The Hurt Locker) with her Untitled Detroit Project (which is slated for a tentative US release in August, meaning Cannes would be the only major festival platform should this date hold). And, of course, the latest film from Alexander Payne, the social satire Downsizing starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, and Laura Dern. Rumored to be ‘deep’ in post-production due to considerable special effects, the film has been screened for test audiences as a work-in-progress in Los Angeles, so it would seem Cannes should be the aim (and Payne’s film Nebraska played here, winning Bruce Dern Best Actor).

And beyond the festival circuit, her additional 2017 output includes the as-yet-titled David O. Russell television series starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, while her 2018 slate and beyond includes Isle of Dogs from Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and new titles from Paul Greengrass, Yann Demange, Wong Kar-wai, and Bennett Miller, (not to mention a couple other Kathryn Bigelow projects).

Here’s a look at five of our favorite past titles produced (or executive produced) by Megan Ellison:

5. Killing Them Softly (2012) – Dir. Andrew Dominik
Dominik adapted George V. Higgins’ (the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle) novel Cogan’s Trade for this superb rendering of an enforcer (a never better Brad Pitt) hired to restore order when three losers (including Ben Mendehlsohn and Scoot McNairy) rob a Mob card game. Including the late James Gandolfini in a colorful supporting role, this darkly comic crime film may not be as underrated as Dominik’s previous film (2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but still isn’t rightly recognized as the superior piece of filmmaking it is. As we await Dominik’s long gestating adaptation of the magnificent Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Blonde (with Naomi Watts, then Jessica Chastain rumored to star), the director recently announced plans to move forward with another project in the interim, War Party, set to star Tom Hardy.

4. The Master (2012) – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Rocking the Venice Film Festival upon its premiere in 2012, Paul Thomas Anderson’s subversive scientology film stars Joaquin Phoenix as the naïve recruit of a bizarre group known as The Cause, whose charismatic leader (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes an interest in him. Molding a subtly terrifying version akin to the humor of Ayn Rand, Anderson’s film reserves the most perverse moments for its female supporting characters, including Amy Adams, and a terrific sequence where Laura Dern inspires her leader’s wrath. The film was awarded three Oscar nods (for Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams).

3. Her (2013) – Dir. Spike Jonze
Joaquin Phoenix memorably headlines this Spike Jonze dramedy about one melancholy loafer’s attempt to find love in the isolating digital age of Los Angeles. Falling in love with the voice and personality of an operating system (Scarlet Johansson), he eventually discovers their romance is unable to fulfill either of their needs. The film picked up five Academy Award nominations and won Jonze a stature for Best Original Screenplay.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow and scribe Mark Boal crafted an expertly hewn thriller out of the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Following a strenuous investigation led by a tenacious CIA operative (a notable performance from Jessica Chastain, who received a Best Actress Oscar nod), the film follows her involvement from 2001 to 2011, when a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent in to kill the infamous terrorist.

1. Spring Breakers (2012)
And then there’s Harmony Korine’s strange and bizarre Spring Breakers, a stunt casting showdown (James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez) where four college aged good time gals find themselves in trouble on spring break, but find solace in the arms of a wannabe rapper arms dealer, which leads to violence and mayhem. Delectably screwy (a perfect vehicle for Franco as the friendly but unbalanced dealer named Alien), this was Korine’s first film since 2009’s Trash Humpers, and the offbeat auteur’s most recognizable title to date (inspiring an unauthorized sequel and rumors of a television series spin off, neither of which were approved or championed by Korine).

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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