Why Megan Ellison’s studio serves as the perfect synthesis of art and commerce.
Don’t look now, but it seems like corporations are the closest thing society has to a conscience. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the CEO of Grubhub promise an organization-wide commitment to diversity and tolerance, Patagonia donate upwards of ten million dollars to environmental organizations, and Kellogg pull advertising dollars from an entertainment site whose messaging seemed directly in conflict with its core values. Granted, none of these organizations are without their harmful business practices, but at a time when politicians seem eager to turn a blind towards racism and sexism, this dedication to corporate responsibility by major corporations stands out.
The idea of a socially responsible corporation can also be applied to Hollywood. Take Annapurna Pictures, for example. The passion project of billionaire Megan Ellison, Annapurna has differentiated itself from its competitors by serving as a home for intelligent, progressive, and artist-focused films. Annapurna has released films across a wide variety of genres and for a wide variety of audiences, ranging from the period dramas of David O. Russell (American Hustle, Joy) to the first forays into animation by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Sausage Party). Ellison herself has become a subject of both praise and skepticism; while people have expressed concerns about the long-term sustainability of the studio, they cannot deny the impact it has had on film culture, with TheWrap author Sharon Waxman referring to Ellison as a “modern-day Medici, underwriting the cinematic artists of our time.” In an industry where the profit margin is so often the bottom line, Ellison stands out as someone whose own wealth allows her to take a longer view of the marketplace.
Over the past few months, Ellison has also begun to expand her studio into alternate entertainment channels. In September, it was announced that Annapurna had created a television department run by Sue Naegle, the former president of entertainment for HBO. Under her watch, HBO reaffirmed its standing a home for prestige television, launching critically and commercially beloved programs such as Game of Thrones and Veep. And finally, just yesterday, Ellison announced the creation of Annapurna Interactive, a new division focused on the independent video game scene. Some of the early projects for the new studio include independent platformers and a new game from Keita Takahashi, creator of the popular Katamari Damacy franchise. Both announcements seem to confirm a commitment to the same values that have made Annapurna Pictures a success: creative control for established talents and a willingness to release a product that doesn’t appeal to the broadest possible audience.
And with these new divisions comes new opportunities for Annapurna to have a real impact on the entertainment industry. Even with a relatively small set of films under its belt, Annapurna Pictures is quickly establishing itself as a place for female-driven films. Movie like Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, and Joy have featured female characters at their center; Annapurna has also acquired films by female dierctors like Ana Lily Amirpour and Kathryn Bigelow, who will shoot her second Annapurna film in 2017. Ellison has become a champion for diversity in the arts, delivering a speech at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival that highlighted the potential for her studio to bring diversity to the industry.
Art doesn’t belong to the few but to the many and I believe that the perspective we’re putting out in the world should not come from such a small subset of people. It’s a disservice to us all. As Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable,’ and that’s what I believe and that’s what I want to be a part of.
Granted, you may think – as others have – that Annapurna Pictures an aberration, less a progressive corporate entity and more a playground for a billionaire cinephile, but surprisingly, academic research might be on Ellison’s side. Back in 2013, a Harvard Business School study suggested that we were on the verge of a brand new era of ‘social impact investing,’ where major corporations could use their immense capital to invest in social initiatives – poverty, health risks, education – and subsequently open up new markets and new avenues for revenue. If for-profit organizations are willing to put money into areas typically reserved for charitable organizations, the authors wrote, the results could “move the needle on a social issue and deliver acceptable financial returns at the same time.” Similarly, a recent study by Columbia Business School showed that employees are willing to accept a smaller financial compensation if they believe that their company is committed to social responsibility. Research showed that the average participant submitted a 44% lower salary bid when they learned about the positive benefits of their parent company.
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Still skeptical? In 2015, Forbes ran an article by impact investor Ian Simmons that highlighted Academy Award-winner Spotlight as the perfect case study for this new line of thinking. In the piece, Simmons pointed to the two production companies behind the film – First Look Media and Participant Media – as examples of organizations that are equally interested in both social impact and the bottom line. Films like Spotlight and First Look Media’s Citizenfour are financial considerations, but according to Simmons, they also reflect these studios’ commitment to social issues, namely “institutional governance and transparency in the media.” Simmons concludes by noting that Spotlight’s success is “a high-profile signal of the arrival of a new generation of business leaders and investors who understand that markets that can generate profits with principle and purpose.”
None of this is to say that Annapurna Pictures is going to be the studio that changes Hollywood, no matter how much the headline writers of film outlets may want this to happen. However, Annapurna can represent a new wave of mini major studios that attempt to do the right thing and make a little bit of money in the process. If we as consumers value organizations that dedicated to impact investments in the entertainment industry, it is worth our time and money to support them along the way. We may all look to the next four years as a period where corporate interests grab America by the throat and refuse to let go, but studios like Annapurna Pictures, First Look Media, and Participant Media all offer an alternative to the traditional narrative, one that values social responsibility as much as the profit margin. Here’s hoping they find the kind of support on the market that keeps their model sustainable for years to come.