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How David Ellison Built Skydance Into Hollywood’s Smart Bet

  • June 20, 2021

At the same time, Skydance continues to have a producing and financing deal with Paramount. (It expires next June.) That means Skydance has the opportunity to invest in Paramount productions and help shape the creative outcome. Coming collaborations include “Snake Eyes,” an action film based on a G.I. Joe character and set for release on July 23, and the much-anticipated sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” which will arrive on Nov. 19. Mr. Ellison is also a financier and producer of two more “Mission: Impossible” movies.

The upshot: At a time of entertainment industry upheaval, Mr. Ellison has transformed Skydance into the rarest of Hollywood businesses — a thriving, built-from-scratch, all-audiences, independent studio. Nobody (insider or outsider) has accomplished that feat in decades, certainly not on the scale Mr. Ellison is attempting. He wants to be Legendary, the “Godzilla vs. Kong” studio that was founded in 2000 and sold for $3.5 billion in 2016. And he also wants to be Pixar, which was started in 1986 and sold for $7.4 billion in 2006.

The last Hollywood start-up with this much ambition may have been DreamWorks SKG, which was founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

“David Ellison is not some rich guy’s son who is a dilettante in all of this — not at all,” Mr. Geffen said. “He’s a very serious, hard-working, committed guy who keeps getting better at what he’s doing. He is succeeding in a tough, tough businesses that is changing dramatically and fraught with danger.”

The question is whether Skydance can maintain its momentum. Even the DreamWorks dream team found it difficult to navigate Hollywood’s fast-changing currents.

And what is Mr. Ellison’s end game?

In some ways, Skydance is an instruction manual for understanding Hollywood — where it’s been, where it is now, where it’s going.

Studios like Paramount used to control everything. Costs remained relatively stable, and film companies mostly bankrolled their own productions (with occasional money laundering from the mob). As Hollywood grew, star-struck outsiders with too much money and too much ego arrived to finance pictures. “The smart ones usually got out as quickly as they could,” said Jason E. Squire, the editor of “The Movie Business Book.”

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