David Ellison is Hollywood’s latest highflier. The 28-year-old aerobatic pilot, who can roll a plane 420 degrees a second, is charting a new risky course: movie producer.
The first film that Ellison gambled on under his new co-financing arrangement with Paramount Pictures was “True Grit,” a surprise box-office smash that racked up 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture.
Now the son of billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder and chief executive of software giant Oracle Corp., has to show a skeptical movie industry that he’s not just a trust fund kid dabbling in Tinseltown and that he can play an effective role in determining what movies come to the big screen over the next few years.
“It’s something I grew up with my whole life,” David Ellison said of the associations of privilege that his last name conjures. “I only ask that people keep an open mind and give me a shot. One thing this company will never be is just a checkbook.”
Backed by $350 million in funding, Ellison’s Skydance Productions is the primary financing partner for Paramount’s movies. Despite little experience in Hollywood, Ellison has latched on as executive producer for such high-profile pictures as a fourth “Mission: Impossible” and is spearheading a sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise action movie “Top Gun.”
Although some people in Hollywood may be expecting him simply to write checks and attend premieres, Ellison says he is building what he calls a “media company 2.0.” Skydance aims to finance and produce four to six movies a year with Paramount as well to develop its own projects, and eventually to move into television and new media.
“The hurdle for this company is the stereotype” of Ellison, Skydance production president Dana Goldberg said. “The good news is he comes from a world where if people say they’re going to do something, they do it.”
Skydance’s small but growing slate features the kind of films that appeal to a kid who grew up infatuated with silver-screen spectacles like “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars.” Ellison described his taste as “elevated event entertainment,” code in Hollywood for commercial action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy movies that play to wide audiences.
Ellison readily acknowledges that his name has helped swing doors open for him in Hollywood while other aspiring producers his age are working as gofers and looking for their big break. His father’s relationships gave him access to such media titans as Steve Jobs and David Geffen, who made key introductions to power players like entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham. The lawyer subsequently helped Ellison structure his business plan.
Larry Ellison invested an undisclosed amount in the $150 million of equity that Skydance has raised, which was supplemented with a $200-million credit line arranged by JPMorgan Chase & Co. The money comes at an opportune time for Paramount, which has lost several movie partners in the last few years, including DreamWorks Studios, Marvel Entertainment and Spyglass Entertainment.
“Having a producer who wants to bring us big commercial ideas and also invest with us in franchise pictures is the sweetest kind of deal that exists,” Paramount film group President Adam Goodman said.
David Ellison grew up in Woodside, an exclusive enclave south of San Francisco, watching movies and playing video games. He and his father, always close, took their first flying lesson together when David was 13.
But two summer internships at Oracle during high school convinced Ellison that he didn’t want to follow his father’s footsteps into the high-tech world.
By then, Ellison had developed a passion for aerobatic flying. He’s logged more than 2,000 hours in the air and houses his two planes at Skydance’s offices in a hangar at Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
“It’s one of the few arenas left in the world where you can do things that have never been done before,” Ellison said of his hobby.
His preoccupation with flying and movies was behind Ellison’s decision to drop out of USC film school in 2005 to make his first film, the World War I drama “Flyboys,” in which he also played the role of a young American fighter pilot. Skydance contributed 30% of the film’s $60-million budget, and Ellison helped seal an “insanely complicated” financing deal among several banks and funds, said the movie’s producer, Dean Devlin, who noted, “We were schooled by a 23-year-old.”
The movie was a box-office flop and lost tens of millions of dollars for its investors. “I openly admit to making a lot of mistakes,” Ellison said. “I got my PhD doing the movie.”
“Flyboys” also led to sniping in Hollywood that Ellison was trying to buy his way into acting gigs in exchange for his willingness to finance a picture. Indeed, despite the setback with “Flyboys,” Ellison continued to pursue acting and landed parts in independent films and TV shows.
Ellison finally abandoned acting last summer, when a movie he wrote, “Northern Lights,” inspired by the death of his best friend in a flying accident, fell apart in an embarrassingly public way.
A press report said “Twilight” star Taylor Lautner, who was offered $7.5 million by Ellison to star as one of the pilots in the movie, dropped out once he learned that the movie’s financier was also planning to costar, a revelation that only served to reinforce the impression that Skydance was a vanity play for its founder.
A representative for Lautner said the young actor believed that it was a conflict for Ellison to both produce and act in the movie, and it was not disclosed until late in the process. Devlin, who was also producing, said it was never a secret that Ellison was going to play a role in the film.
“When that movie didn’t come together, it was a turning point,” Ellison said. “Everything I’ve done has helped me to realize producing is all that I want to do.”
One of Ellison’s priorities now is developing a sequel to “Top Gun.” He pitched the film’s original team -- Cruise, director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer -- on ways to update the story to the 21st century, such as integrating the increasing use of unmanned drones by the military.
“He called us up and said he wanted to get all the guys together,” Bruckheimer said. “The world has changed dramatically and he’s on the leading edge of what aviation is today, so he has interesting thoughts on what the movie could be.”
On another project, a movie based on Tom Clancy’s spy novel “Without Remorse,” Ellison made a key suggestion to make the plot more current by shifting the setting to China from Russia, producer Roberto Orci said.
In the last few months, Ellison has traveled to Prague, Czech Republic; Vancouver, Canada; and Dubai to visit sets for “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”
“I was on my guard about David at first, but he has an infectious personality, and most importantly, he loves movies,” said Bryan Burk, a producer on the movie.
Ellison said he had another movie-related project on deck, one unlikely to be found in the development logs of most Hollywood producers: reenrolling at USC film school.
“I’ve got less than a semester left,” he said, “and it’s really important to me to finish my degree.”