In Praise of David Ellison
Plus: A Ray Liotta movie assigned.
Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters this Memorial Day Weekend and it’s sure to make a bucket of bucks for Paramount (which wisely held it from heading straight to streaming), Tom Cruise (who, Matthew Belloni notes, stands to make a ton of money given that he’s earning 10 percent of Paramount’s cut on top of his own $12.5 million paycheck), and theaters (which are desperate for big hits).
But another big winner is David Ellison, the founder and head of Skydance Media. Ellison’s name probably isn’t as well known to folks outside the business—few people really know who producers are or what they do unless they become a brand unto themselves like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (who just so happen to be credited on Maverick despite the fact that Simpson’s been dead a decade-plus now—but he’s quietly put together one of the most interesting resumes of any producer in town over the last 15 years.
Skydance has made a fascinating mix of the high (funding the Coens on their True Grit remake; Alex Garland’s extended cancer metaphor, Annihilation; and Ang Lee’s nigh-on experimental high frame rate 3D film, Gemini Man) and the low (he has credits on Geostorm, the G.I. Joe movies, and the two latest, very-not-good, Terminator pictures). Most impressively, though, Ellison’s managed to mix high and low by funding a bunch of films that skirt the line between commerce and artistry. You see that most clearly in his partnerships with Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie: the first Jack Reacher and the most recent run of Mission: Impossible movies are all equal parts rousing popcorn movies and action excellence.
And Skydance has done a good job of navigating the pandemic and post-pandemic landscape. As much as I would’ve liked to have seen The Tomorrow War on a big IMAX screen, it’s probably the sort of flick (an original, big-budget action movie) that would have a rough time recouping its money in theaters. Without Remorse feels more at home in the world of Amazon, where it can live beside the (Skydance-produced) Jack Ryan series. And Jack Reacher has done extremely well on Amazon too; I hear that series surpassed viewership expectations for its first month in the first 72 hours or so of release, a supposition backed up by the data.
In other words: David Ellison is living the dream. Not yet 40, he’s taken his family fortune and built a successful production label with a hit-to-miss ratio that nearly anyone would admire. He has both commercial and artistic credibility. As anyone can tell you, that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. And the future’s only looking bright, as he’s got an ongoing partnership with the world’s biggest movie star and one of the world’s richest men.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
I reviewed Top Gun: Maverick this week. Positively! I reviewed it positively. Good movie, and one currently resting at 97 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and 99 percent positive from viewers. It’s going to make a ton of money over the four-day weekend.
On the special members-only bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, Alyssa, Peter and I asked if Tom Cruise is the last legit movie star.
I didn’t write about this in my review because it wasn’t really germane to the overall point. But when I was watching the film, I noticed that a.) it didn’t have the Tencent logo and b.) the Japanese and Taiwanese flags had returned. Erich Schwartzel (previously a Bulwark Goes to Hollywood guest!) reports that Tencent pulled out of funding the picture over fears of angering the CCP, opening the way to the return of the flag. This feels like a tipping point, particularly if Top Gun: Maverick ends up grossing in the $300-$400 million range worldwide over these first few days.
I also reviewed Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers this week. It plays a bit like Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the millennial set, merging references across a bunch of different studios with the Lonely Island ethos into a coherent whole. It’s also a movie that’s deeply concerned with intellectual property rights, a topic I find fascinating. I felt nakedly pandered to, is what I’m saying, and I quite appreciated the sensation.
On BGTH, I chatted with JVL about the paucity of movies for kids in theaters.
Sad news, as Ray Liotta died unexpectedly this week in his sleep. Just 67. What a shame. I tried to explain just why his work in Goodfellas is so key to that movie, as well as paying tribute to some of his under-appreciated roles. Speaking of Ray Liotta …
Assigned Viewing: Something Wild (Criterion Channel)
I’m going to do something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before: assign a movie I haven’t actually seen. This assignment is as much for me as it is for you.
When I wrote about Liotta, a handful of folks like Jon Ralston chided me for my failure to include a mention of Something Wild. And the reason for that is relatively simple: I, well, haven’t seen it. So I shall rectify that this weekend in between episodes of Obi-Wan and the new season of Stranger Things.
I hate action movies, especially Pentagon-endorsed ones. I also despise the Scientologist Tom Cruise. I hated the first Top Gun movie, which was pop culture trash starring one of the most overrated "actors" since John Wayne. Ugh.
Last night when I saw David Ellison’s name I thought about how much better his film making venture has gone than his sisters. It feels like A24 stole some of the Annapurna thunder.