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Entertainment & Arts

Megan Ellison is energizing indie film world

She’s a 26-year-old former party girl with social anxiety issues, a motorcycle-riding iconoclast who dropped out of USC and attends meetings in Led Zeppelin T-shirts.

Megan Ellison is also the most powerful new producer in Hollywood, running a burgeoning movie company from her $33-million compound in the hills above the Sunset Strip — and giving a critical boost to the kinds of adult dramas the major studios have all but abandoned.

Hollywood has long attracted wealthy, star-struck investors who don’t appreciate the difficulty (or “complexity”) of making a critically and financially successful movie. But fans of Megan Ellison, the daughter of Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison, say she is helping to reinvigorate the independent film business with her deep pockets and highbrow tastes.

Among the prestigious filmmakers working with her are Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”), and Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”).

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She financed four movies at a total cost of more than $100 million that will debut this year. Two are competing at the Cannes Film Festival underway in France.

Her emergence comes at a crucial time for serious movies. Several studios have shuttered their specialty film divisions in order to focus on big budget tent poles like"Battleship,"and the flow of Wall Street money that once funded independent cinema has slowed to a trickle.

“I think she has the potential to be the next Harvey Weinstein,” said International Creative Management agent David Unger, comparing her to the Oscar-winning Miramax Films co-founder responsible for “Shakespeare in Love” and"The King’s Speech.”

Few can claim to truly know Megan Ellison. She doesn’t hobnob with Hollywood high society or run her company with a cadre of industry veterans. Yet she has won admirers among Hollywood’s top filmmakers and executives.

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“The kind of movies Megan is helping to make are tough to do, but they’re the reason we all got into this business,” said Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal, whose studio will release Ellison’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a $45-million dramatization of the Navy SEAL hunt for Osama Bin Laden directed by Bigelow, in December.

Ellison’s father, the chief executive ofOracle Corp., is the third-richest man in America according to Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $36 billion. Ruthless and competitive, he races yachts, collects exotic cars and has been married four times. He and his third wife divorced the year Megan was born.

She and older brother David grew up watching movies on a VCR with their mother in Woodside, Calif. On her Twitter feed she describes “Back to the Future” as the “best film trilogy of all time” and quotes 1980s comedies like Goldie Hawn’s “Overboard.” She says Terence Malick’s existential drama “Tree of Life” was the best film of 2011.

David is a garrulous figure with a passion for aerobatic flying who is also in the film business. His Skydance Productions invests in and produces mainstream commercial movies like “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and the upcoming"G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”

People who know the pair describe Megan as more cerebral than her brother, eschewing small talk and speaking only when she feels confident.

“She’s soft-spoken, but she’s not afraid to tell you how it is and what she thinks,” said Randall Emmett, a producer who worked with her on the 2011 release “Catch .44.”

Ellison was on the Shreveport, La., set every day during the shooting of that movie and grew close to its writer/director Aaron Harvey. Her co-producers were skeptical when Harvey asked for thousands more dollars to spend on the film’s soundtrack, but Ellison backed her director and paid for the music herself.

On the bootlegging drama"Lawless,"which stars Shia LaBoeuf and Jessica Chastain and premieres in Cannes on Saturday, Ellison refused when director John Hillcoat requested more time and money for editing, according to a person with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly.

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Ellison, who has upgraded from motorcycles to a gray Aston Martin, is rarely photographed and declines all requests to be interviewed. However she occasionally shares personal thoughts on Twitter.

“The control freak in me really clashes with the social anxiety in me, which drives me to drink in social situations,” she wrote in March. “It’s a real lose, lose.”

After attending USC’s film school for two semesters, Ellison left in 2005 and traveled the world. Among her stops was Nepal, where she trekked on the Himalayan mountain Annapurna, for which her production company is named. The young mogul then financed a quartet of low-budget movies, none of them commercial or critical successes.

Things changed in early 2011, when Ellison turned 25 and gained access to a massive amount of family money, people briefed on her finances said. Around that time, she spent $13.8 million to buy a third Sunset Plaza house, which now serves as Annapurna headquarters.

People who have been inside the seven-bedroom stone-and-stucco building say it has been renovated into a casual office with a Silicon Valley start-up feel. (Visitors have found Ellison strolling around in sweat pants). Contemporary art and posters for classic James Bond films and"A Clockwork Orange"hang on the walls. Meetings are often held by the pool.

In a smaller house next door, which Ellison bought for $6.25 million, filmmakers hole up for editing and production work.

“It’s a strange experience to pull aside the dark curtains of the cutting room and step out poolside to a movie star view of L.A.,” said “Lawless” producer Doug Wick.

People who have worked with Ellison describe her as involved in business matters but more eager to learn about the actual filmmaking. She is frequently on the set of her movies, traveling to Pakistan and Jordan with “Zero Dark Thirty,” and seeks information about matters as obscure as camera lenses.

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“She was never intrusive creatively, but she had no problem drawing a line financially,” said Wick.

She picks projects based entirely on personal taste, knowledgeable people said, with a particular affinity for certain filmmakers. After several meetings with Anderson last year at Art’s Deli, she agreed to finance his controversial upcoming $30-million movie, “The Master,” which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the founder of a 1950s religion that resembles Scientology. She has told Anderson she hopes Annapurna will be his permanent home.

“Megan is like a patron of the arts,” said Joanne Sellar, Anderson’s producing partner. “She’s taking filmmakers under her wing and letting them flourish.”

It’s not just art she is patronizing. Annapurna last year spent a reported $20 million for the rights to make a fifth “Terminator” film.

That may signal the tyro film producer’s larger ambitions.

“The question isn’t who’s going to let me,” Ellison tweeted recently, quoting Ayn Rand. “It’s who’s going to stop me.”

ben.fritz@latimes.com

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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