If you browse 28-year-old Megan Ellison's Twitter feed you'll find the sort of material posted by many pop culture fans her age: inspirational thoughts from figures ranging from the late film critic Roger Ebert to Thomas Edison and Oscar Wilde; her favourite quotations from Back to the Future, Mean Girls and The Big Lebowski. Reflecting on internet culture, she writes: "I'd like to think message boards don't represent the majority of humanity but if they do we are all f-----." Her verdict on Kanye West? He "really is as good as he says he is".
Ellison comes across like someone you could enjoy being friends with. But as the first woman and only the fourth person in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for two best picture Oscars in the same year – for producing Spike Jonze's sci-fi romance Her and David O Russell's Seventies crime caper American Hustle – her life is crammed with moments that most 28-year-olds can only dream of.
"Photo bombing with my Golden Globe," she writes on Twitter under a picture of herself at the awards ceremony, surrounded by Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. She chats casually on Twitter with Oscar nominees such as Jonah Hill: "Hi Jonah, I just wanted to say that your performance in Wolf is f------ EPIC. My mind was blown. Leo killed it too. Fearless." Hill replies: "Thank you Megan! I love every film you make! Means a lot. Let's make one together!"
Ellison may have started small as a producer with straight-to-DVD effort Waking Madison (2010) and the little-seen Main Street (2010), but today she has producer credits on a dazzling array of critically acclaimed, award-winning films. In addition to this year's dual Oscar contenders, Ellison produced Kathryn Bigelow's 2012 CIA thriller Zero Dark Thirty (nominated for five Oscars), Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 meditation on a Scientology-like cult The Master (nominated for three Oscars), and John Hillcoat's Nick Cave-scripted 2012 western Lawless (which played in competition at Cannes). She has also executive produced the Coen brothers' remake of the 1969 John Wayne vehicle True Grit (nominated for 10 Oscars), Harmony Korine's delirious bikinis-and-balaclavas romp Spring Breakers (2012), and Wong Kar Wai's Oscar-nominated The Grandmaster.
By the time Harvey Weinstein turned 28 in 1980, the legendary producer had zero credits to his name. So how has Ellison so quickly got ahead of the curve?
The clue's in the name: she's the daughter of Larry Ellison, the third-richest man in the United States and founder and CEO of Oracle, a massive software manufacturer. There are rumours (which Ellison's representatives deny) that as a 25th birthday present her father gave $US2 billion to her production company, Annapurna Pictures. Regardless of the money, Ellison has stayed true to an avowed mission "to produce sophisticated high-quality films that might otherwise be deemed risky by contemporary Hollywood studios".
Risky is right. Where a major studio might say a film wasn't for them or provide only a small budget, Ellison has gone the other way. The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was on the verge of being funded for $18 million by Fox when Annapurna swooped in and offered twice the amount. The picture won critical acclaim but lost money, taking just $28 million worldwide. Equally the profit margins on Lawless (which cost around $26 million and took $54 million) and another Ellison-funded venture, Andrew Dominik's Killing them Softly (made for $15 million, it grossed $38 million), would not satisfy most studios. But are pictures that work as art but not as business good for the film industry?
"There are grumbles that billionaire backers distort the market," says Ben Roberts, the director of the British Film Institute Film Fund, "but would these films be getting made otherwise? And given that American Hustle has just passed $200 million box office worldwide, perhaps it's not such a wild distortion after all."
The key to understanding Ellison's investments is that the element that so scares studios, risk, isn't a factor if the reason you fund a film is because you want to make that film. Of course, studios have a name for outside finance that dates back to the early days of Hollywood: "dumb money". Ellison's own brother David, who also produces, has even been the subject of a Forbes article headlined "Larry Ellison's Son Is Hollywood's Latest 'Dumb Money'?". It's not a label that seems to have stuck to Megan Ellison, perhaps because it's hard to argue with all those Oscar nominations. Announcing this year's haul, she tweeted the tally: 17.
17— Megan Ellison (@meganeellison) January 16, 2014
Critics have instead suggested Ellison just likes playing with movie stars. Fair? She was certainly ruthless in her pursuit of Jessica Chastain for the lead in Zero Dark Thirty, going around her agent and texting her: "If I ever ask you for anything in my life, it's to call me back for five minutes." It worked: Chastain came on board, and received a best actress nomination.
Thank God there's someone rock'n'roll in Hollywood who has balls and good taste.
Some claim that adding blockbuster production values to independent films creates unreasonable expectations of other independent films, but that's an argument that essentially boils down to "not fair!". Meanwhile, you don't have to look far to find an article commenting on something largely irrelevant to Ellison's success: her body shape, her tendency to go easy on the make-up, or her predilection for a suit over a gown. In resisting this aspect of the circus, Ellison is an heiress who's the anti-Paris Hilton.
The verdict of Warp Films' Mary Burke, producer of award-winning films on a more modest scale, including Submarine and Berberian Sound Studio, is that "Megan Ellison is obviously a hero, and if I had that much money I'd want to be making exactly the same films. Thank God there's someone rock'n'roll in Hollywood who has balls and good taste."
But where next for someone with the power to invest in practically anything? A move to invest in small-screen drama wouldn't feel odd, especially factoring in something Ellison wrote on Twitter: "It's my dream to make a fantasy series in the realm of Game of Thrones or LOTR [The Lord of the Rings]. It's the closest to living in a fantasy world as you can be."
It's easy to imagine Ellison identifying not with one of the conventionally elegant ladies of the court but with tomboy Arya Stark, a scion of a high-born family, who takes her talent into the wider world – and gets things done.
Daily Telegraph, London