Plenty of wealthy heirs go to Hollywood with dreams of artistic success, only to walk away with scant results and smaller fortunes. Not Megan Ellison, the daughter of tech tycoon Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America. As a film producer, Ellison has scored big with cutting-edge original dramas, including Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and American Hustle, which have earned her Oscar nominations.
Recently, though, she’s been in the news for an unexpected act of philanthropy—saving Vidiots, an iconic video store in Santa Monica.
For 30 years, Vidiots has gone its own way, stocking 50,000 films based on quality, not box office success. Filmmakers have responded in kind, often autographing copies of their work with hand-written notes including The Thin Red Line director Terrence Malick, Robert Towne, the writer of Chinatown, and the three-time Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone, whose comment was nearly prescient: "What would life be like without Vidiots?"
With the advent of Red Box vending machines and streaming for instant film gratification, video stores have nosedived from a peak of 20,000 in 1999 to 3,900 in 2013. The Vidiots Foundation was the store’s attempt to restructure as a nonprofit fueled by fundraisers that included auctioning off a lunch with The Fault in Our Stars and Jurassic Park star Laura Dern. Nothing worked. "We are just bleeding money. We just can't do that anymore," co-owner Cathy Tauber told the Los Angeles Times. “Rentals have dropped 24 percent in the last six months and are down 60 percent from the store's peak years in the early 2000s.”
When the store announced that it would close this April, longtime patron Dr. Leonard M. Lipman stepped in to help, but he couldn’t save the store alone. Enter Megan Ellison, the founder of Annapurna Pictures. “Annapurna” is a Hindu Goddess who supplies a benevolent abundance of nourishment, certainly appropriate considering Ellison’s largesse. She intends to help restructure the store so that it’s somehow sustainable.
So how can this 29-year-old afford to carry this institution on her back? Well, it isn't just because of her daddy's checkbook. While Ellison began her producing career as a financier by tapping inherited wealth, she's now made lots of her own money, and her overall fortune is estimated by Forbes at least $300 million. Her current project is based on Amanda Lindhout’s memoir A House in the Sky, about Lindhout’s capture by Somali rebels.
Ellison's own deep pockets, the far bigger family fortune waiting in the wings, and the Vidiots rescue all got us to wondering how she might eventually develop as a philanthropist. Who else could benefit from her largesse?
This question is particularly significant given that Larry Ellison has said that 95 percent of his wealth will go to philanthropy upon his death. It's hard to imagine Megan and her brother David wouldn't have a significant role in overseeing any new giant Ellison Foundation. If their father dropped dead tomorrow, we'd be talking about a foundation that, in theory, anyway, would have around $50 billion in assets, making it the largest foundation in the world.
So, yeah, paying attention to Megan Ellison is pretty important.
As for what causes she might eventually embrace, that's pure conjecture. But the rescue of Vidiots was significant, underscoring how much Ellison cares about serious cinema. Obviously, there's a lot she could do in this area as a philanthropist. She could give money to USC's film school, even if she did drop out. She could give money to the Sundance Institute, as Jeff Skoll did recently. She could follow Martin Scorsese's lead in giving for film restoration and preservation.
When Ellison was named by Time as one of 100 most influential people in the world, Academy Award–nominated actress Jessica Chastain wrote in the magazine: "The Italian Renaissance flourished because patrons like the Medici family sponsored artists and valued their craft. Today the film industry has been blessed with a modern version of the Medicis—a single benefactor who has the utmost respect for cinema: Megan Ellison."
As for other causes, it's possible to imagine Ellison, an open lesbian, getting into LGBT rights philanthropy, as so many other wealthy gay people have done.
Ultimately, of course, how her father's wealth is eventually given away will be strongly determined by his own interests, which have included medical research and animal welfare. But his children will probably direct things, and anyway, Megan has plenty of her own money.
This is definitely a person to watch closely.