On April 7, Annapurna CEO Megan Ellison made headlines as the only notable show business figure to openly criticize Scott Rudin on social media after the latest expose of the super-producer’s alleged workplace abuse and toxicity was published last week.
While some activists and film enthusiasts applauded Ellison for speaking out, others found it hypocritical for someone who also has a fierce temper and has had explosive incidents of her own, according to four sources with direct knowledge of such behavior.
Ellison’s re-emergence on Twitter was the most public sign of life from the 35-year-old producer and Oracle heiress in more than a year. Three months ago she quietly returned to her home base of Los Angeles and resurfaced at her company after a mysterious self-imposed hiatus in Hawaii that began over the Christmas holidays in 2019.
Having “ghosted” her soldiers on the ground in Los Angeles and a dwindling number in New York even before as well as during the global pandemic, insiders said Ellison has increased her role in the daily operations of her production company (albeit remotely, as her West Hollywood office has yet to fully reopen, like many workplaces across the U.S.) Her sabbatical came after a series of well-documented misfortunes for Annapurna, which was founded ten years ago. This includes a failed attempt to expand Annapurna into a theatrical distribution engine; the departure of high-profile movie titles; a corporate financial meltdown that saw the intervention of her father, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison; layoffs due to COVID-19; and the departures of some members of Ellison’s trusted executive team.
During her break in Hawaii, Ellison spent time nursing her professional wounds by entertaining guests and creatives including Spike Jonze (the director of one of Annapurna’s most notable films, “Her”), according to those familiar with her whereabouts.
While the mercurial producer had always been prone to bouts of absence, none had lasted so long as this latest excursion, according to sources. When departing in 2019, people familiar with her actions said she left Annapurna’s Chief Creative Officer Sue Naegle to answer questions about the company’s ongoing viability. When Ellison returned to Los Angeles at the end of January 2021, she engaged in the company’s negotiations to acquire Jerrod Carmichael’s Sundance entry “On the Count of Three.”
A spokesperson for Annapurna declined to comment on Ellison’s long break from her job. Another source familiar with the company said Ellison routinely spends her holidays in Hawaii, a trip that was prolonged due to the pandemic lockdown. The source said Ellison was always available to her team and noted that the spread of Covid-19 forced a shutdown of production and distribution. Naegle’s duties as CCO involve being a public face to the town, added the source.
The question many of Ellison’s employees and industry peers are now asking is, how does she move her diminished brand forward as she returns to a rapidly transforming Hollywood?
Annapurna’s film unit has been significantly hobbled, and hasn’t released a film since the August 2019 flop “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a Richard Linklater drama starring Cate Blanchett. The movie misfired with critics and earned a paltry $10 million domestic box office on a reported $18 million budget. Ellison was known for her close relationships with acclaimed filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell, but industry players are no longer confident that some A-list creatives would take a chance on the once-free-spending Ellison given her professional setbacks.
After installing his own forensic accountants to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy and resolve more than $200 million in debt in 2019, sources say Larry Ellison significantly scaled back Annapurna’s current access to development and production funds. At the time, sources told Variety that Ellison would either wholly finance film projects or seek case-by-case partners, forgoing a new multimillion-dollar line of credit. Larry Ellison’s advisors are no longer active at the company, insiders said.
Renewed interest from distributors could help the film unit, given that Annapurna is free to seek new partners outside of United Artists Releasing, the wobbly joint venture it sealed with MGM in late 2017. While Ellison has the option to release films anywhere, sources said she was unusually deferential to UAR in the negotiations for “On the Count of Three,” underscoring how dependent she’ll be on the group if no one steps forward to help her place the film in theaters. The pact was set to expire in 2021, but sources said MGM has opted for another year of releasing its own films through UAR (including the upcoming James Bond adventure “No Time to Die”). To extract itself from the agreement would be more costly than it’s worth, one source said, especially as MGM continues to seek a splashy sale, which it is rumored to be pursuing.
In addition to the Carmichael film, Annapurna is currently developing feature adaptations of the novels “The Echo Wife” and “Nightbitch,” the latter to star Amy Adams. There’s also “Landscape with Invisible Hand,” a sci-fi film in partnership with Brad Pitt’s Plan B, and a planned feature adaptation of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book “She Said,” about the reporting of their hugely impactful Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story.
A spokesperson for United Artists Releasing did not comment on the matter. An MGM spokesperson similarly declined to comment.
Annapurna’s television unit has fared far better through Ellison’s absence. A smattering of development projects include a scripted take on the Netflix doc sensation “The Staircase,” set up at HBO Max with Colin Firth; a series from “Zola” director Janicza Bravo set to star Jake Gyllenhaal; and the widely anticipated Hulu series about the romance of rocker Tommy Lee and actress Pamela Anderson, “Pam & Tommy.”
The division has been productive under former Amazon executive Patrick Chu, who joined in 2019 as a direct report to Naegle. The department also includes senior vice president of development Ali Krug and production executive Susan Goldberg. Compared to its TV counterparts, Annapurna’s film arm has far to go in finding the same success, insiders said. The development slate has been lacking since the 2018 departure of longtime Ellison consigliere Chelsea Barnard. A year later, Annapurna’s president of film Ivana Lombardi and president of production Jillian Longnecker left for Netflix in quick succession. Longnecker’s replacement Sophia Hedlund has just departed Annapurna for a production gig at Apple Studios. Naegle took over purview of the film department in 2019 when she was upped from head of TV to CCO. The company is actively seeking a new president of film.
Individuals long familiar with Ellison said her biggest battle has been between artistic and financial sensibilities, though other problems have arisen in the workplace. Many former employees credit Ellison for adopting diverse and inclusive hiring practices long before Hollywood’s recent reckoning with race and equity. They similarly applauded her for maintaining Annapurna throughout the pandemic, when many in her financial position could have easily folded the shop and started anew. Others, however, saw some similarities in Ellison and Rudin’s behavior.
“Megan has an ability to recognize talent, but isn’t a good manager,” said one veteran executive who has worked on numerous projects with Ellison. A number of people took particular offense at what they called her hypocritical response to the Rudin story, pertaining specifically to her temper.
“This piece barely scratches the surface of Scott Rudin’s abusive, racist, and sexist behavior,” Ellison tweeted last week. “Similarly to Harvey, too many are afraid to speak out. I support and applaud those who did. There’s good reason to be afraid because he’s vindictive and has no qualms about lying.”
A story often told in the halls of Annapurna’s well-appointed West Hollywood bungalows was a late 2017 incident in which Ellison hurled a patio chair at a top executive. The act of rage was said to be triggered by this person’s delivery of unfortunate news. Variety corroborated the story with individuals working at Annapurna at the time, and with several people familiar with the event. None spoke on the record out of fear of retribution. A source close to Ellison said she was not aiming for the executive. The executive in question left the company shortly after, and declined to comment on this story.
Around the same time, Ellison famously dressed down veteran distribution executive Erik Lomis, whom she lured from The Weinstein Company to pilot Annapurna’s distribution efforts (he would eventually move over to UAR), in a staff meeting with over a dozen people. She ordered him to “get the fuck out of my building” in front of senior staff, who looked on in disbelief, sources familiar with that incident said. A UAR spokesperson declined to comment on behalf of Lomis.
Some former employees felt Ellison played mind games. If she thought employees were underperforming, she would reassign desks or offices to stations in another building to make her dissatisfaction tangible, sources said. An individual familiar with the company said this was a creative exercise to encourage collaboration between different departments on a continuing basis. She would also text employees on weekends and in the middle of the night, often sending accusatory and punishing lectures in dozens of subsequent messages if she did not receive immediate responses, the sources added.
An Ellison spokesperson had no comment on the above incidents.
While some familiar with Ellison insist she can’t help being a firebrand, others said that in trying to guarantee Annapurna’s future, she’s reevaluating her past choices. A closer look at her Twitter account reveals that aside from the Rudin comments, Ellison has scrubbed her past four years of tweets. The same goes for her Instagram account, which has been wiped but for one post, a dashboard toy dancing to the Enya classic “Only Time.” An insider familiar with Ellison said she deleted the tweets in an effort to live a more private life.
“She basically deleted everything from the entire time she tried to expand the company,” one source noted. “Like the past four years never happened.”
The question now is, what will Ellison and Annapurna’s next four years look like?