Seven years ago Megan Ellison took a leave from the University of Southern California to climb the mountains of Nepal. On Sunday, the 27-year-old daughter of billionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison hopes to climb the Dolby Theater stage in Hollywood to accept the Best Picture Oscar for "Zero Dark Thirty."
It could be a tough ascent for Ellison, who spent $43 million to produce the film, which is nominated for five Academy Awards. Director Kathryn Bigelow's drama about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden was passed over for a Golden Globe, often a predictor of the Oscars, and also missed out on the Screen Actors Guild's top film prize. "Argo" took both.
Still, the younger Ellison has scaled Hollywood's rungs of influence and power with startling rapidity despite scarcely a dozen films to her credit.
She already has Oscar experience, helping to finance the 2010 Jeff Bridges film "True Grit," nominated for 10 Oscars.
This year, she produced director Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," about a charismatic sect leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which earned him and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams Oscar nominations.
"She is bringing great projects to the screen and doing good things for this business," said Bill Gerber, who produced the Clint Eastwood film "Gran Torino" and has not met Ellison. "She is like the legendary producer Hal Wallis ("Casablanca"), who bet on filmmakers and let them realize their dreams."
Deep pockets help. Larry Ellison's only daughter has a hefty trust fund to draw on, and is one of a growing number of wealthy business scions who employ their family coffers to bankroll movies.
Teddy Schwarzman, the 33-year-old son of Blackstone Group Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman, produced this year's Mark Walhberg film "Broken City." John Powers Middleton, the 29-year-old son of Philadelphia Phillies part-owner John S. Middleton, is producing nine films and the planned TV series "Bates Motel," according to film information website IMDB.com.
Megan Ellison's 30-year-old sibling, David, raised $350 million in debt and equity in 2010 and produces big-budget action films with Viacom's Paramount Pictures, such as this year's "Star Trek into Darkness."
His sister largely keeps to herself in a town where glad-handing, fancy parties and showy appearances is currency. She doesn't give interviews. She took a power lunch with "Master" director Paul Thomas Anderson at a neighborhood eatery called Jerry's Deli and has gone to meetings on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Ellison declined to comment for this story through her publicist and did not respond to calls to the office of her company, Annapurna Pictures, or messages left on her Facebook page.
EQUESTRIAN TO ANGEL
Since setting up Annapurna in 2010, Ellison has become a prolific producer, having helped finance 11 films. Four others are in various stages of production, according to IMBD.com.
Last year, she and brother David split the $15 million to secure the rights to "The Terminator" franchise, sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding, outbidding Lions Gate and other studios. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently told reporters he hopes to join the cast of "Terminator Five."
With studios shutting down specialty film divisions and filmmakers finding it increasingly difficult to get financing, Hollywood welcomes someone with a large checkbook and a genuine interest in their films.
"The Master" languished till Ellison was shown a script, the film's producer, JoAnne Sellar, recalled in production notes for the movie.
"Megan Ellison appeared like an angel who swooped in and said, 'I love this project and let's do it,'" said Sellar. "That's when things really began to happen."
Jessica Chastain, nominated for an Oscar for her lead role in "Zero Dark Thirty," says Ellison pushed her to take the part.
"'We have this film, and Kathryn Bigelow wants you," the actress recalled Ellison saying, in an interview with Vanity Fair. "'We went to your agent and were told that you were busy. I cannot accept that for an answer.'"
Ellison makes quick decisions, a trait filmmakers like. It only took two meetings to convince her to back "Zero Dark Thirty," said screenwriter and producer Mark Boal, who said he and Bigelow chose her over other interested financiers.
"She loves films and she was very enthusiastic about this one. What's not to like?" said Boal. "She has her own ideas, but she let us do what we thought best for this film."
The young producer has backed her share of financial misfires, including "The Master," which cost $32 million to produce and has only generated $26.2 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to the site Box Office Mojo. Other flops included the Brad Pitt film "Killing Them Softly" last year.
Megan Ellison shares her father's passion for buying choice real estate. She owns three adjoining properties in a pricey hilltop section of Hollywood, including one from which she runs her company.
The producer was raised in Woodside, California, where her mother, Barbara, bred horses at her Wild Turkey Farm. David flew airplanes. Megan competed in equestrian-jumping competitions.
"She could have been a champion, she was that talented. And she had the determination to succeed you don't often see in someone that young," recalls her coach, champion jumper Mandy Porter. "But one day, she decided she wanted to try something else."
Her next film, "Foxcatcher," stars Steve Carell as John du Pont, a member of the prominent du Pont family who was convicted in the 1966 shooting of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz on du Pont's 800-acre Pennsylvania estate.