IN THE FUTURE...THE MOVIE BUSINESS WILL BE LIKE 15TH CENTURY FLORENCE
WORDS: BEN KIRBY
Ok, so we're not saying that the movie business will be exactly like 15th century Florence. There will likely be fewer frescoes and Gothic churches, and unless Harvey Weinstein gets a sudden uric acid build-up, he's not going to turn into Piero the Gouty any time soon. Nonetheless, there are some modern Medicis emerging in the film industry and already dominating awards seasons. A new form of patronage could offer a distinctly old-fashioned way ahead.
What do we mean by that? Probably the most prolific and successful example of this phenomenon is Megan Ellison, who founded Annapurna Pictures in 2011. Since then, she's funded and produced Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, The Master, Her and quite a few other critical darlings. Oh, and she's 28 years old, which makes her younger than Macaulay Culkin and only five months older than Lindsay Lohan. This year, she was named as one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World, while Annapurna to date has accrued 35 Oscar nominations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of people consider her the bright white hope of film funding.
THE POWER OF THE PURSE IS NOW FAR MORE CONCENTRATED, WITH ONE PERSON HAVING THE ABILITY TO REALISE A FILMMAKER'S UNFILTERED VISION.If anyone can be called a patron, Ellison can. When Paul Thomas Anderson was struggling to fund his tale of a '50s cult, The Master (prompting conspiracy theories about Scientology's grip on Hollywood), it was Ellison who swept in to save the day. She's someone with strong tastes, willing to take risks on filmmakers and projects she believes in, and the results have so far been astonishing. She's no bored millionaire (or billionaire; her father is Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, with a net worth of $48 billion), but someone with a genuine love of cinema, keen to get as involved as she can. And she's not the only one: her brother David helped rescue Paramount from financial collapse a few years ago and has set up another production house, Skydance Productions, which gets involved with big-budget fodder like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Star Trek Into Darkness, making him arguably an investor in obviously audience-friendly fare rather than Megan Ellison's attempts to lead audience taste.
But it's not just the Ellisons who have been cutting the cheques. Jeff Skoll (formerly of eBay and purportedly worth almost $4bn) founded Participant Media, which has fared similarly well. Skoll has helped usher to the screen prestige projects including Good Night, And Good Luck, Syriana, The Kite Runner and Charlie Wilson's War. Moreover, he's had some big financial hits too. Just as Annapurna Pictures hit the box office big time with Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle, Participant Media had unexpected success with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – a budget of $10 million brought back over $135m worldwide.
Annapurna Pictures' Megan Ellison (left) with Jessica Chastain and Zero Dark Thirty producer/screenwriter Mark Boal.
Fellow billionaire Gigi Pritzker has also had big successes with her ventures into movieland. She founded OddLot Entertainment, and through this funded Drive, which turned a $15m budget into $76m and change. Oddly, we also have Pritzker to thank for John Oliver's new show on HBO, Last Week Tonight, for it was Pritzker who funded Jon Stewart's upcoming directorial effort Rosewater, ensuring that Stewart went on sabbatical from the Daily Show and Oliver filled his shoes in the summer of 2013. That promptly got poached by HBO for its new news show, and the rest is history. These pesky billionaires can make pretty big waves in the entertainment world, with just one paddle of their well-manicured and permanently tanned feet.
WITHOUT FUNDING FROM PEOPLE LIKE ELLISON, THESE FILMS SIMPLY WOULDN'T GET MADE. JOAQUIN PHOENIX REFERRED TO HER AS "THE HAN SOLO OF FILMMAKING", SWOOPING IN TO SAVE THE DAY.But isn't there something slightly distasteful about this kind of patronage? A quick perusal of Google Images will show a plethora of Hollywood auteurs and talented artists grinning enthusiastically, with their arms draped around Megan Ellison. No wonder – she's a fountain of funding, enabling them to realise their visions free from studio interference. Whether from genuine affection or desperation, filmmakers are eager to get a slice of the patronage pie. But for any complaints this might prompt, there isn't a great deal of difference between this model and the old studio system. The biggest change is that the power of the purse is now far more concentrated, with one person having the ability to realise a filmmaker's unfiltered vision.
There are risks involved, of course. If someone like Ellison loses interest in films (or if they consistently fail to make their money back), there's a threat that these financial rivers will run dry. In her case, it seems unlikely – she's intimately involved with her movies, and was instrumental in the casting of Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Moreover, without funding from someone like Ellison, these films simply wouldn't get made. Lawless was destined to be a victim of the recession until Annapurna swooped in to save the day, as was The Master (Joaquin Phoenix called her "the Han Solo of filmmaking" – except her Millennium Falcon is an enormous chequebook).
So Ellison's method fills a gap. Patrons are the only people making these politically-charged, adult-focused efforts. While studios double down on their biggest, most expensive franchises, it's the mid-budget films (usually dramas) that have suffered, and need all the help they can get. If not wealthy patrons who want to make awards-friendly fare they can be proud of, then who funds these efforts?
In fact, some – including the Wrap's Sharon Waxman – have criticized Ellison for spending too much money; as Waxman argues, "every big-ticket failure kills another great movie in its infancy." More worrying still is the sheer power these new movie patrons wield, coupled with the threat that they might get a bit too involved. Ellison's former co-producer Harvey Weinstein is notoriously interfering, and there's nothing to stop a patron from shouldering their way in from the casting sessions to the edit booth. Hopefully if they get that inspired, they will just go one further and turn director. After all, Howard Hughes was both the money man and the megaphone wielder. Even Tommy Wiseau did it.
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.
In fact, some kind of involvement is already happening. Megan Ellison is well known for getting her hands dirty, while Jeff Skoll has specifically funded politically engaged films in order to promote the issues he cares about: cases in point include fracking flick Promised Land, nuclear weapons documentary Countdown To Zero and, most famously, Al Gore's feature-length PowerPoint, An Inconvenient Truth. While such topics are generally laudable and important, it's also inconveniently true that filmmakers with a passion project will now find themselves at the mercy of a billionaire's personal politics.
TRADITIONAL FILM STUDIOS WILL BECOME EVER MORE WILLING TO CEDE SUCH RISKY GROUND WHILE THEY TAKE COMFORT IN CHURNING OUT TRANSFORMERS 8.For anything beyond tried and tested franchises with name recognition, then, we're becoming increasingly reliant on the good taste of a few billionaires, and dependent on their continued interest in cinema. True, there's no sign of this patronised (for want of a better word) output slowing down just yet: in the next year, we can look forward to Beasts Of No Nation, Foxcatcher, Mortdecai, R-rated Seth Rogen animation Sausage Party and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as well as some bona fide blockbusters like Mission: Impossible 5 and Terminator: Genisys.
With each new film that arrives from the pocket of a Megan Ellison, traditional film studios will become ever more willing to cede risky ground while they take comfort in biger budget, franchise fare and churning out Transformers 8 or 12 Fast 12 Furious. To some extent, the new funders are breaking up the old Hollywood monopoly by taking on some of this heavy lifting. But the fact that some of the aforementioned blockbusters are coming from these new companies clearly shows a desire to make money as well as art. Will it eventually be a case of say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss?
Regardless of how you feel about patronage, it's certainly not going anywhere. Even Steven Spielberg relied on Skoll's Participant Media to make Lincoln, and when the biggest director in the world needs a friendly billionaire to get a film made, you really should start paying attention. As an audience, we're going to have to get used to trusting in the artistic tastes of an extremely wealthy and select few. So make yourself comfortable. The Medicis are back, and they've brought popcorn.