Dick Cheney is alive. The company that made Vice is dead.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but Megan Ellison, the producer of Vice via Annapurna Pictures (which is named after a mountain she once climbed), is finding that the air is getting thin around the company bankrolled by her billionaire dad, Larry. Annapurna is mulling Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to the Hollywood Reporter and other outlets. The younger Ellison issued a vague non-denial and seemed hurt that reporters had taken notice of what’s going at her company, one of the leading producers of Oscar-bait films these days.
“I got word this morning that there are some rumblings around town about our current status with the banks,” Ellison said in a statement. “Restructuring deals with financial institutions is not uncommon, yet the process is usually handled without a spotlight on it. Fortunately/unfortunately, people like to write about me and my family.”
Somewhere, Dick Cheney is laughing. Vice, a spastic, nasty, and inane would-be comedy from Anchorman director Adam McKay that repeatedly made fun of the former veep’s heart attacks, was filmed for a reported $60 million, plus tens of millions more for promotion and an awards campaign. It scored eight Oscar nominations and won a Best Actor Golden Globe for Christian Bale in the lead role. And it looks like it lost well over $25 million. Earlier in the season, Ellison had released the disastrously unfunny Western comedy The Sisters Brothers, which also appears to have lost tens of millions. A few weeks before that she’d released the amateurish satire Sorry to Bother You, a bizarre comedy-fantasy made by an actual, avowed Communist, which also must have lost millions. Other Ellison flops include If Beale Street Could Talk, Destroyer, and Booksmart. Her next release, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has been sitting on the shelf for more than a year, comes out Friday and will lose a shedload of money too.
Ellison is the latest in a decades-long list of suckers who came to Hollywood eager to buy themselves a place in the clubhouse, though she was one of the few who kept going even as her combined losses reached staggering levels. “Annapurna has burned through much of the $350 million credit facility the company secured in fall 2017,” reported the showbiz site Deadline. “Those sources said Annapurna has either defaulted or is about to default on that debt.”
When major talents couldn’t get their passion projects funded by the established studios, Ellison proved to be their new best friend. At first she encountered some success: American Hustle didn’t look like a commercial proposition, but it brought in $250 million at the global box office. Zero Dark Thirty did pretty well too, grossing $132 million worldwide.
But Ellison apparently thought she wasn’t getting enough credit for the success of these pictures, each of which was released by Sony. So she doubled down and took on the breathtakingly foolish risk of becoming her own film distributor. Annapurna Pictures morphed from a production company to a full-fledged movie studio, albeit one that dealt only in niche movies. If there is one iron rule in Hollywood, it’s that the easiest way to set your money on fire is to specialize in arty movies targeted at Oscar voters. The only studio that ever appeared to be making a go of this for very long, Miramax, was in reality torching so much of the Walt Disney Company’s money that the studio unloaded it in 2010, insulting its founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, by refusing to allow them to retain the studio name, a combination of their parents’ names.
Ellison was either ignorant of, or simply heedless of, Hollywood history, in the carefree manner of someone who is spending someone else’s money. Any other studio would have blanched at the enormous price tag McKay sought for Vice: $60 million? For a political satire? It’s not clear that any political satire ever made would have turned a profit at that price. Paramount Pictures, where McKay made The Big Short, originally backed the project but got cold feet. Ellison, though, was willing to trade her father’s money for Oscar glory. Her pictures have earned 52 Oscar nominations in the eight years Annapurna has been in business. Her brother David, meanwhile, doesn’t make Oscar pictures and consequently isn’t going bankrupt. David’s company is called Skydance and makes movies like the last three Mission: Impossible pictures and the forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick.
All of the big Hollywood studios (five are left since Disney bought Fox) have been in business since at least 1923, when Walt and Roy Disney started making cartoons. Universal and Paramount date to 1912, Columbia to 1918, Warners to 1923. All of these companies are part of gigantic multinational corporations and have deep libraries and other means of cushioning the blows that come when a movie flops. And yet all of them are far stingier with a buck than Ellison proved to be. This is because they understand the business they’re in. Ellison doesn’t.
She’ll be welcome in Hollywood as long as she keeps writing checks. After that, the actors and directors who know they can score Oscar nominations for making industry-beloved films nobody wants to see will be looking over her shoulder for the next sucker to finance their follies.