The Master. Zero Dark Thirty. Spring Breakers. Her. American Hustle. Foxcatcher. Joy. Phantom Thread. All films that were critical darlings. All were award-season favorites. And all were either produced or co-produced by Annapurna Pictures. Annapurna became known as a boutique studio that would allow filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Bennett Miller, David O. Russell and others to make what ever films they chose with slightly higher budgets than the could get elsewhere.
It seemed like a ideal situation, but that ideal might be coming to and end. Annapurna recently cut ties with two high profile projects: the Jennifer Lopez “Strippers-as-Robin Hood” crime-drama, The Hustlers at Scores, and the untitled Fox News drama to be directed by Jay Roach–this one just a day after Malcolm McDowell was hired to join the cast. Both films scrambled to find replacement financing, producing and distribution.
Then it was announced that Annapurna founder Megan Ellison was stepping in to reexamine the film division and to take a more day-to day role in the company. But that might not solve any of the company’s problems.
Ellison, daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, created Annapurna in 2011. The company released its first film the next year, Lawless, a co-production with The Weinstein Company. In September of 2016, it launched Annapurna Television, which focused on creating television product. In December of the same year, it branched out into video game production with Annapurna Interactive
It was in 2017 when the financial strains started to be felt. The company decided to branch out into film distribution in January of that year, part of its plan to become a full-fledged studio. This put a strain on the company’s financially unsound production philosophy. Annapurna would produce expensive art house or experimental films. And while there were a few hits (Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, Spring Breakers, Sausage Party), most of the studios output failed to achieve grosses higher than its budget and if it did, not enough to make a profit.
The article say that 2017’s Detroit is one of the major reasons why the company is in the trouble its in. The film was a passion project for director Kathryn Bigelow. Annapurna sank $40 million into the film. It only made a little over $24 million worldwide. But some of the blame has to also go to Phantom Thread, a film that garnered six Oscar nominations but only disappointing $47.2 million worldwide against a $35 million budget.
This added to the fact that the company’s president, chief financial officer and president of film all left the company over the last several months give the impression of Annapurna as a sinking ship that people are trying to jump off.
The Wrap article linked to above quotes anonymous insiders who say Ellison’s unfeasible pursuit of pricey prestige projects that had no hope of earning their money back was offset by influxes of cash from her billionaire father. The insider says that Larry Ellison grew tired of sinking money into the company with little to no return, and stopped bankrolling his daughter’s creative whims. Without daddy’s money, Megan Ellison’s reckless spending led to the situation the company is in now. Annapurna denies all these allegations.
Hollywood is not kind to independent studios to begin with. Annapurna has put out a number of quality films in its existence. But the type of films that win Oscar nominations rely make money at the box office. And any business where you spend more than you take in is doomed to fail. Here’s to hoping Ellison is able to right the ship and continue giving us great films in the future.