This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Holiday movies are like brightly wrapped gifts: They might look alluring, but you don't know what you're getting until you open them. Producers David and Megan Ellison have their names on a number of shiny packages this holiday season, and while some of Megan's already have proved disappointing, the biggest for both siblings remain swaddled in mystery.
The Ellisons -- whose father, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, is pegged by Forbes as America's third-richest man -- have taken divergent paths in Hollywood. David, 29, tends to pursue big commercial fare. Through his Skydance Productions, he has committed $350 million to co-finance a slate of films, including Paramount's hit Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol and the Coen brothers' True Grit, in which his sister also invested. Megan, 26, has used her Annapurna Pictures (named for the Hindu goddess and the Himalayan mountain where Megan has trekked) to finance such under-the-radar films as Lawless and Catch .44.
This fall, Megan has suffered some disappointments and possibly learned some hard lessons. She'll lose money on Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which cost about $40 million. The film grossed only $17 million, and while it was expected to be a broad awards contender, buzz has narrowed to Anderson and star Joaquin Phoenix. A worse fate awaited Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly -- modestly budgeted at about $15 million -- which not only flopped during the Nov. 30 weekend but also delivered a rare F CinemaScore (though sources say Megan made a small investment and was covered by foreign sales).
Industry sources say Megan was less than pleased with The Weinstein Co.'s handling of those pictures. With Master, she is said to have felt that Harvey Weinstein saved his awards-season love for Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. And an insider says Weinstein insisted on opening Killing, a dark and violent mob drama, on 2,400 screens rather than executing a buzz-building platform release (though with such a low CinemaScore, good buzz seems unlikely). A Weinstein spokesman declined comment. Megan's rep did not respond.
Still to come is Megan's most expensive endeavor to date. Zero Dark Thirty, a $40 million-plus film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, will begin awards-qualifying runs Dec. 19 in New York and Los Angeles before going wider in January. (Sony is handling domestic distribution.) While sources say the shoot was far from smooth -- and Megan was drawn into the chaos -- director Kathryn Bigelow's second collaboration with writer Mark Boal scooped up early best picture and director honors from the New York Film Critics Circle. ("F-- YES!!! That's right," Megan tweeted after the win.) Bigelow and Boal's The Hurt Locker won Oscars but topped out at $49 million worldwide. Zero, though unflinchingly brutal, might attract a broader audience.
Meanwhile, David is hoping to entice audiences with lighter fare. He has invested in The Guilt Trip, out Dec. 19, with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a mother and son driving cross-country. He's also co-financing Jack Reacher, a drama starring Tom Cruise as an ex-military cop hunting down a murderer, which opens Dec. 21. David is still in suspense about the films because neither has been reviewed nor tested in the marketplace.
Despite their differing tastes in film, the Ellison siblings appear to share certain approaches to the business: Both are press-shy, and both are trying to be hands-on investors. (Megan traveled to Jordan and Pakistan during the making of Zero Dark Thirty, and David gave notes on and visited the set of The Guilt Trip.) Both are taking steps to avoid being seen as prey. They are advised by CAA's Bryan Lourd and marketing veteran Tom Sherak, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Attorney Skip Brittenham also advises David and, on occasion, reps Megan. Both Ellison children attended but did not complete their studies at USC film school. (USC has said it expects David to finish his degree at some point.) Both seem to have an appetite for thrills, and both have competed in elite sports, David as an aerobatic pilot and Megan as an equestrian. (She also has a thing for motorcycles.)
While at this point David is well ahead of Megan in terms of return-on-investment, the biggest hazards might lie ahead. He has put money into two big-budget Paramount bets that were supposed to be released this year: G.I. Joe: Retribution and the Pitt zombie movie World War Z. Both films were troubled and pushed to 2013. World War Z just completed several weeks of shooting an extensive reworking of its third act in London (with David's head of production, Dana Goldberg, on set). G.I. Joe will open March 29, and World War Z will follow in June. (David also has invested in Star Trek Into Darkness and the Jack Ryan reboot.)
While World War Z is David's riskiest bet to date (sources say he's in for a quarter of the now-$200 million-plus budget), he's still a cautious young man. The Ellison siblings recently teamed on a new series of Terminator films. Megan paid more than $20 million for rights more than a year ago, but she now has turned to her brother for help. "He understands [big] movies better than she does," a source says. But there seems to be a limit to brotherly love: David will not put any of his own money into the films.