Armed with great taste and deep pockets, Megan Ellison was the patron cinephiles needed when she founded Annapurna Pictures in 2011. Eight years on, Annapurna has delivered when it comes to getting directors’ dream projects before the masses. Her filmography includes “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” “American Hustle,” “The Master,” “The Grandmaster,” and “Phantom Thread.” Last year alone, the company’s films won two Oscars and were nominated for 12 others.
But the Ellison formula hasn’t worked for the bottom line. The real trouble began two years ago, when the company expanded its founding mission of producing and financing films to include marketing and distribution. Like other producer-financiers from Bob Yari (“Crash”) to Broad Green’s Wall Street billionaire founders, Ellison started a distribution company in order to keep a bigger share of the money from theaters.
Prioritizing a wide-release strategy, Annapurna has burned through tens of millions and is reportedly facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Annapurna’s latest release, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” won’t help matters. It opened this weekend in 2,404 theaters and grossed just $3.45 million.
For now, Annapurna appears to have seen a reprieve: Deadline reported Monday that Ellison’s father, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, submitted a final offer to Annapurna’s lenders, offering between 80 and 85 cents on the dollar for over $200 million in debt.
Success in Hollywood lately looks like this: Tentpole movies geared toward an international audience go wide and make billions. Arthouse films choose a limited release in hopes of turning a modest profit and winning awards. And in between is Annapurna: a company with the mission of bolstering original filmmaking while remaining on steady financial ground.
So on one level, the diagnosis is simple: A wide audience hasn’t shown up for Annapurna’s mid-budget, auteur-driven awards movies — and the company spends too much on making and marketing them. However, each film contains its own specific challenges that have varied with the industry landscape.
Here are five selected films that illustrate how Annapurna got here.
“Detroit” (August 2017)
The upside: Intended as the coming-out party for Annapurna’s distribution arm, it spoke to a company that intended to make bold moves. This was Kathryn Bigelow’s first film since she and Ellison made the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2012, and the story was meaningful and timely with its no-holds barred look at Michigan authorities’ siege of the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riots. The incident led to three black men dying and others brutalized by white police officers who were ultimately exonerated. This was a serious, artful film positioned as an awards contender; with a summer release, it promised to be the kind of counterprogramming that would get audiences talking.
The downside: While company insiders suggested that Bigelow pull back on the movie’s assaultive violence, Ellison backed her filmmaker’s uncompromising vision. Reviews were good though not rapturous, while word-of-mouth told audiences that this was a real-life horror story. While “Detroit” might have been hard to take any time of year, it produced the worst opening-weekend box office performance of any wide release in 2017. The movie grossed $16.8 million on a budget of $35 million-$40 million, before marketing.
Producing artistic movies with studio-level budgets (aka, movies that studios no longer make) is a brave but challenging business choice — but two years ago, it still seemed like the right choices might have a shot. Today, “Detroit” looks like a kind of madness: a tough movie with very limited international potential (MGM handled foreign), and a budget that demanded well over $100 million in North American box office to turn a profit.
“Sorry to Bother You” (July 2018)
The upside: A wholly original, smart, and unapologetically political satire, first-time writer-director Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is the kind of movie that Annapurna adores. (When the company bought the film at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in a “low-to-mid seven-figure deal,” its press release declared: “We fucking love this movie!”) A funny and thought-provoking vision of race and capitalism in modern America as told by a black filmmaker, “Sorry to Bother You” also was a kind of anti-“Detroit,” which earned blowback for its white director’s brutal depiction of “torture porn.” It didn’t land any Oscar nominations, but “Sorry to Bother You” got people talking. It made $17.5 million in North America — enough to put the film in profit.
The downside: “Sorry to Bother You” may be Annapurna’s greatest financial success to date. That’s not good news: Not only does it represent a modest success on a low-budget title, but at no more than 1,050 screens it also didn’t represent the company’s wide-release business model that was designed to see bigger returns on more ambitious projects.
“The Sisters Brothers” (September 2018)
The upside: “The Sisters Brothers” was the English-language debut of French auteur Jacques Audiard, director of César-winning films include “A Prophet.” His leads were three beloved, daring, and deeply respected actors — John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal. “The Sisters Brothers” had the earmarks of an awards contender and the potential for being an arthouse hit.
The downside: Critics loved it, but a Frenchman’s interpretation of the bygone Western genre turned out to be too obscure to result in box-office success on any level; it grossed $13.1 million worldwide. The film didn’t even nab any major awards.
Perhaps most concerning was the movie’s budget: $38 million. That suggested Ellison believed a two-hour Western from a director making his first English-language feature could gross well over $100 million, which would be necessary if it was going to have a shot at a profit. News of the movie’s abysmal performance were twinned with reports that Larry Ellison stepped in to save his daughter’s hemorrhaging company. Less than three weeks after the release of “The Sisters Brothers,” film president Chelsea Barnard left Annapurna.
“Booksmart” (May 2019)
The upside: Olivia Wilde’s universally acclaimed directorial debut debut freshens the “Superbad” storyline. Blending broad humor with subversive wit, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as two smart girls desperate to get into trouble on the eve of high-school graduation. It grossed $22.7 million in North America, with Netflix buying international rights; on a $6 million budget, it should turn a profit.
The downside: After a $2.5 million opening day, panicky chatter dominated the social-media conversation. Even Wilde expressed concern about Annapurna’s marketing strategy when she took to Twitter to plead with her followers to see the movie “TODAY” (even tomorrow was too late), or else run the risk of studios refusing to greenlight women-directed movies about women.
Annapurna released “Booksmart” on 2,505 screens, a decision that generated criticism — clearly, it should have been platform? — but as IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann reported, it’s not like platform releases do well outside awards season. And the wide release creates financial kickers (especially with that Netflix deal) that platform can’t.
“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (August 2019)
The upside: Richard Linklater is a beloved, Oscar-nominated auteur with a box-office track record at both the arthouse (IFC Films’ 2014 “Boyhood,” which grossed $44.5 million worldwide on a $4 million budget) and in wide release (Paramount’s 2003 “School of Rock,” which made nearly $200 million worldwide, adjusted). His adaptation of Maria Semple’s critically acclaimed 2012 novel, starring Cate Blanchett as an architect who leaves her family to find herself, had all the earmarks of the kind of film that Ellison designed Annapurna to make.
The downside: “Bernadette” telegraphed signs of trouble long in advance. Originally scheduled for release May 11, 2018, it was pushed to October 19, 2018, then to March 22, 2019 — and finally August 16, where the $18 million production grossed $3.45 million on more than 2,000 screens. Critics have been mixed at best, with a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Annapurna optioned Semple’s novel in 2013, which seems like another era: That was a time when Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” made nearly $40 million (adjusted) in North America, never went beyond 1,300 screens, and won Blanchett an Oscar. In 2019, “Bernadette” is a disappointing result by any standard — but at this point for Annapurna, it’s one that’s no longer surprising.
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