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David Ellison's journey from trust fund kid to media mogul vying to buy Paramount

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David Ellison's journey from trust fund kid to media mogul vying to buy Paramount

When David Ellison, the mega-rich aerobatic pilot and Ferrari-driving son of multibillionaire Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison landed in Hollywood, he was viewed as yet another trust fund scion with Klieg lights in his eyes and an enviable bank account.

Unlike most Hollywood neophytes of his ilk, however, Ellison did not flame out in ignominy or retreat much poorer for his efforts. Rather, Ellison (after a few hiccups) launched Skydance Media, a successful Santa Monica-based production company that has bankrolled a slew of massive box office and television hits such as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Star Trek” and “Grace and Frankie,” and more recently, expanded into animation, sports and gaming. Two years ago, the company secured $400 million in funding, giving Skydance a valuation at more than $4 billion, and it now has 1,300 employees.

Today, Ellison’s Skydance Media is a strong contender to acquire Paramount Global in a deal that would give the 41-year-old control of the storied movie studio behind “The Godfather” and “Chinatown,” as well as a sprawling portfolio of assets including CBS Entertainment, the BET, MTV and Nickelodeon cable channels and a national movie theater chain — recasting Ellison from mega-rich Hollywood financier to even richer media mogul.

The proposed deal — it would see Skydance acquire National Amusements (the company that owns nearly 80% of Paramount Global’s voting shares) for $2 billion in cash, followed by Paramount Global buying Skydance in an all-stock deal worth $5 billion — has been backed by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s powerful nonexecutive chairwoman, but it is far from assured.

Shareholders have pushed back, saying the transaction would primarily benefit Redstone at the expense of regular investors. Earlier this month, in the midst of negotiations, four of the company’s board directors resigned over the planned merger.

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“The last thing the company shareholders need is yet another silver-spooned movie enthusiast to run our entertainment company into the ground,” shareholder Blackwood Capital Management wrote in a blistering letter to Paramount’s board.

And Ellison’s bid faces some formidable competition: Sony Pictures Entertainment is in talks to join Apollo Global Management in its $26-billion offer for Paramount Global. Sony and Apollo must wait for an exclusive 30-day negotiation period that Paramount’s independent board of directors has extended to Ellison.

A spokesperson for Ellison and Skydance declined to comment.

Despite the shareholder opposition, Ellison remains confident that his deal will prevail, although it’s likely negotiations will continue beyond the 30-day period, said a source familiar with negotiations who was not authorized to comment.

If Skydance prevails in the Paramount takeover, it would represent a significant victory for Ellison and the latest consolidation in an industry still struggling from the upheaval caused by streaming and last summer’s labor unrest.

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At the same time, it would bring some fresh challenges for the rising Hollywood player. Chief among them: Can Ellison transform Paramount, which is weighted down in debt and facing many of the same headwinds as other legacy companies with aging linear TV and cable assets, into a new and successful future?

“David has an institutional knowledge and an appreciation for the studio’s history and a real love of movies,” said Adam Goodman, former president of Paramount Pictures. “I don’t know his plan, but I would bet on that kid any day of the week.”

More than a trust fund kid

David Ellison was born in 1983, the first and only son of Larry Ellison and Barbara Boothe, the third of the tech tycoon’s four wives. When he was 3 and his sister Megan was 3 months old, their mother filed for divorce.

Ellison and his sister grew up with their mother on a horse farm in Woodside, in the Bay Area. Their father owned multiple properties, including, an 8,100-square-foot home nearby, modeled after a 16th century Japanese emperor’s palace.

When David Ellison was 10, his father had an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion and was named to Forbes’ billionaire’s list for the first time. As of this month, Larry Ellison’s fortune has morphed into $131 billion, making him the world’s 10th-richest man, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

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During school breaks, David Ellison and his sister spent time with their father sailing around the world on his super yacht, Ronin.

By most accounts, it was Ellison’s mother who provided him with a grounding, steady influence. In exchange for doing chores, he received a $5 allowance, as he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ellison’s mother also nurtured his love of film. They went to movie openings every weekend. At home, she kept a collection of 2,000 VHS titles. Ellison and his sister would binge watch blockbuster franchises like “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park” and the original “Terminator” movie.

When Ellison was 13, he and his father took flying lessons together. Thinking it would instill a sense of responsibility in his son, he bought him a German two-seat aerobatic monoplane, and on weekends the pair — alongside an instructor — staged mock dogfights over the Pacific, according to one of the elder Ellison’s biographers.

Although acutely aware of his extreme wealth, Larry Ellison took a rather pragmatic view on the effect it might have on his children.

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“The sooner my kids get experience dealing with the pluses and minuses of having a lot of money, the better,” he told Matthew Symonds, author of the Larry Ellison biography “Softwar.”

Early on, the tech entrepreneur set up trusts for his children with large tranches of stock in Oracle, the company he co-founded in 1977 that went public in 1986; and later NetSuite, an enterprise software company he helped finance, that went public in 2007. Over time, the trusts, in addition to their independent holdings, have made David and his sister phenomenally wealthy.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is said to be supporting his son’s bid to acquire Paramount.

(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

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Ellison initially gave his children 90,000 shares of Oracle, according to Forbes. By 2013, the stock had split 10 times, increasing the trust to 29.2 million shares, then worth nearly $1 billion. Two years later, Forbes reported that Ellison’s heirs owned 2.8% of Oracle stock valued at more than $4.8 billion.

During high school, Ellison spent a pair of summers working at Oracle, but the tech universe held little interest for him.

After transferring from Pepperdine to USC’s film school, he dropped out in 2005 during his senior year to make his first film, “Flyboys.” (Megan was the boom operator on his senior thesis film. She later founded Annapurna Pictures, maker of critically acclaimed films including “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

Ellison co-starred with James Franco in the World War I aerial combat film, about a group of young Americans who volunteered for the French military. Ellison also put up 30% of the movie’s $60-million budget, in a deal brokered with then-ICM agent Jim Berg.

Tony Bill, the movie’s director, recalled Ellison as modest, well-mannered and someone who became popular with the other young cast members during filming. Bill, who won a best picture Oscar for producing “The Sting,” found Ellison’s demeanor “extraordinary.”

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“He never said or behaved or implied in any way who he was behind the scenes.” When the rest of the cast did find out, Bill said, they were in shock. “It was like are you … kidding me? I can’t imagine anyone I’ve ever known who was famous or rich who didn’t find a way to drop it in along the way.”

“Flyboys” bombed, earning just $18 million at the box office worldwide.

Undeterred, Ellison stayed in the game. In 2010, he founded his production company, Skydance Media. He continued to act, appearing in a number of small roles, such as the best friend of a college golfer in the comedy “Hole in One.”

After “Twilight” star Taylor Lautner dropped out of Ellison’s movie “Northern Lights,” a film that he co-wrote and planned to co-star in, he abandoned acting.

“When that movie didn’t come together, it was a turning point,” Ellison told The Times in 2011. “Everything I’ve done has helped me to realize producing is all that I want to do.”

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Around town, however, the episode bolstered the idea that Ellison was just a rich kid with what Hollywood likes to call dumb money.

While he had money, Ellison wasn’t dumb.

In addition to wealth, Larry Ellison provided his son with a cadre of his influential and powerful friends who made important introductions and advised him on the finer points of deal-making and negotiating.

Along with Jim Berg, who also sits on Oracle’s board, David Geffen became an early guide. Entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham helped set up Skydance’s business plan.

But it was his father’s close friend, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who also built Animation Studios, that had a profound influence on Ellison.

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Jobs offered to listen to hear Ellison’s pitch for Skydance, but he was skeptical.

“ ‘I want you to come back up here and talk about how you guys are going to aspire to make movies and tell stories better than anybody else, because that’s what we did at Pixar,’ ” Ellison told the “Sway” podcast, noting, “It very much changed the trajectory of the company.”

In 2010, Skydance raised $350 million to co-finance movies with Paramount Pictures. Ellison’s father put up a portion of the company’s $150-million equity and JPMorgan Chase & Co. provided a $200-million credit line. Last year, the company closed a five-year, $1-billion credit led by JPMorgan.

Skydance’s current stakeholders include the Ellison family, private equity firms RedBird Capital Partners and KKR and Chinese conglomerate Tencent Holdings.

The funds gave Ellison a venture in a slate of the studio’s big-budget, triple-A titles such as “Mission: Impossible,” “World War Z,” “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”

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Hitting it big with ‘Mission: Impossible’

Ellison got a taste of success right out of the gate. The first film released as part of the arrangement was “True Grit,” the Coen brothers’ western. Made for $38 million, it went on to gross more than $252 million globally while garnering 10 Oscar nominations, including a nod for best picture.

Attempting a rescue, one man is holding the foot of a man who is hanging upside down out of a high-rise, in a movie scene

One of the first films released as part of a financing deal between Paramount and David Ellison’s Skydance was “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” in 2011, starring Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner. The movie has grossed nearly $700 million.

(Moviestore / Shutterstock / Paramount Pictures)

In 2011 came the release of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” which has grossed nearly $700 million, launching a slate of profitable popcorn fare. Ellison also married Sandra Lynn Modic, an actress he met on the set of “Hole in One.”

Despite his youth and relative inexperience, Ellison impressed those around him. “He was a very young person, but he was wise beyond his years, Goodman said.

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“He stands by what he loves, said another producer who was has worked with Ellison. “He fought for the original construction of projects when the easy thing to do was to let the studio make choices.”

Skydance expects to generate about $1 billion in revenue this year and more than double that amount in 2025, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

Yet, Skydance has had its share of setbacks. Both “Gemini Man” and the “Terminator: Dark Fate” reboot failed to connect with either audiences or critics, or both.

Its investment in animation has yet to match the kind of success as its film and television productions. In 2019, Ellison hired former Pixar creative chief John Lasseter to head the unit to an onslaught of criticism. It was just six months after Lasseter’s ouster from the Walt Disney Co.-owned Pixar following allegations that he‘d engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior. The famous director acknowledged unspecified “missteps” in his dealings with employees. Emma Thompson withdrew from the company’s first animated feature, “Luck.”

“He’s had some hits and misses. But he’s been bold and aggressive and built a solid production company in Skydance,” one industry executive said of Ellison.

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Goodman recalled how Ellison proved his mettle during the troubled production of “World War Z.” The movie’s delays, ballooning budget (it eventually cost $200 million) and clashes over whether it was a summer blockbuster or a geo-political allegory threatened to sink the film.

“We made a movie where some parts worked well and others were unwatchable,” Goodman said. “We had two choices: put a Band-Aid on it or go deep and make real creative and financial investments. David and his partners went all in. It was a real test of our partnership and testament to their ability to put their money where their mouth was.”

The film has grossed $540 million at the box office.

The Paramount Global acquisition would propel Ellison into a different stratosphere — with formidable challenges. Ellison and his partners would have to decide whether to continue to invest in Paramount+, its money-losing streaming service that has more than 67 million subscribers; as well the fate of the CBS broadcast network and the company’s many struggling cable channels, like MTV.

The Melrose Gate of Paramount Pictures Studio

The Melrose Gate of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Skydance is seeking to buy the studio.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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More urgently, Ellison must contend with Paramount’s restless shareholders and board members who have objected to the Skydance deal on offer.

The viability of the Skydance deal depends on whether shareholders are willing to believe that the bid — and Ellison’s leadership — will pay future dividends that will exceed the current dilution of their shares, said Nelson Granados, executive director for the Institute for Entertainment‚ Media‚ and Sports at Pepperdine University.

But Ellison’s father’s tech connections — and deep pockets — could help bolster Paramount, particularly if there are new advancements in artificial intelligence, digital production or distribution, he said.

“Can they bring Paramount to the 21st century basically is the big question,” said Granados.

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Times staff writers Samantha Masunaga and Meg James contributed to this report.

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Movie Reviews

‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

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‘The Village Next to Paradise’ Review: Somali Family Drama Doubles as a Potent Portrait of Life in the Shadow of War

Mo Harawe’s debut feature The Village Next to Paradise is a haunting offering. The film, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section and is the first Somali film to ever screen on the Croisette, presents a compelling narrative of one family’s survival in a sleepy Somali town. But it’s the devastating backdrop against which their drama plays out that lingers long after the credits roll. 

The siren wails of drones soundtrack each scene of Harawe’s film, which opens with footage of a real-life report of a United States drone strike on Somalia. Since the U.S. began using drones in the East African country in the early 2000s, Somalis have suffered at the hands of an enveloping and ravenous counterterrorism operation. According to data from the New America foundation, there have been more than 300 documented uses of drones resulting in hundreds of known civilian deaths.

The Village Next to Paradise

The Bottom Line

Uneven but affecting.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Ahmed Ali Farah, Ahmed Mohamud Saleban, Anab Ahmed Ibrahim
Director-screenwriter: Mo Harawe

2 hours 13 minutes

The fatal impact of contemporary warfare organizes life in Paradise village, a locale whose name seems more melancholic with time. Marmargade (Ahmed Ali Farah), a principal character in Harawe’s languorous film, makes money doing odd jobs, but one of his most lucrative gigs involves burying the dead. Some of the people for whom he finds a place in the sandy terrain died of natural causes, but many of them are victims of foreign airstrikes. When this business slows, Marmargade reluctantly smuggles a truck full of goods — the contents of which play a pivotal role later — to a nearby city. 

Because Marmargade knows the realities of living in a place shrouded by the shadow of death, he strives for a better life for his son Cigaal (Ahmed Mohamud Saleban), a buoyant kid who thinks nothing of the constant buzzing coming from the sky. When the local school cancels classes for the year because of chronic absenteeism among the teachers, Marmargade works to send Cigaal to a school in the city, where safety is more than an illusion. But Cigaal doesn’t want to leave his family, friends or his life in the village. When Marmargade proposes this new life to him, the child rejects the idea. 

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The main narrative of The Village Next to Paradise revolves around the conflicting desires within this makeshift family. Marmargade lives with his sister Araweelo (Anab Ahmed Ibrahim), a recently divorced woman who wants to build her own tailoring shop. The two have the kind of fractious relationship resulting from years of mistrust. She thinks her brother should be honest with Cigaal instead of trying to trick the young one into going to school. Marmargade wants his sister’s financial support more than her advice. After she refuses to lend him the money for tuition, Marmargade makes a series of decisions that threatens all their livelihoods. 

Harawe’s film contains many admirable elements. With its unhurried pacing and tender focus on a single family, The Village Next to Paradise recalls Gabriel Martins’ 2022 feature Mars One. And the way Harawe structures the film around a broader geopolitical conflict resembles the role the Chadian civil war played in Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s  2010 film A Screaming Man, which also premiered at Cannes. The cinematography (by Mostafa El Kashef) offers truly striking images that conjure up the ghostly atmosphere of this village without turning its people into caricatures for a Western gaze hungry for a particular kind of poverty porn. 

But The Village Next to Paradise is also hobbled in places by its meandering narrative and occasionally wooden performances from Harawe’s cast of local nonprofessional actors. The sharpness of Harawe’s vision is dulled by a story that takes one too many detours before settling into itself. Characters with dubious relevance are introduced and then dropped, while ones who come to play crucial roles don’t get an appropriate amount of screen time.

The film becomes more dynamic in its latter half, when Marmargade’s desperation leads him to questionable decisions that clash with Araweelo’s desires. Indeed, it’s also during these parts of the film that Harawe pulls the strongest performances from his actors, who otherwise struggle to shake off an understandable stiffness. 

Despite these flaws, Harawe’s film does have a real staying power. The Village Next to Paradise orients itself around a quiet optimism and surprising humor that mirror real life. There are moments throughout that serve as a reminder that even in places where death feels close, hope for tomorrow is still alive.

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‘Masked Singer’ winner reveals whether they will resume 'Musical' — that was a clue — career

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‘Masked Singer’ winner reveals whether they will resume 'Musical' — that was a clue — career

Sixteen contestants went down to one Wednesday night when the “Masked Singer” crowned Goldfish the winner. Underneath the mask was Disney darling, Coachella queen and Broadway beauty Vanessa Hudgens, who was champion of Season 11 of the reality TV competition series.

The competition was down to Goldfish, who sang “Heart of Glass” by Blondie and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John, and Gumball, who chose “Latch” by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith and “Renegade” by Styx. The candy man was revealed to be “Friday Night Lights” star Scott Porter, who worked with Hudgens on 2009’s “Bandslam.”

Judges Jenny McCarthy-Wahlberg and Robin Thicke both guessed incorrectly that he was Derek Hough. Ken Jeong guessed Taran Killam, and Rita Ora thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt was under the mask.

They fared much better unmasking Goldfish: While Thicke guessed Hilary Duff and Jeong said it was Nicole Scherzinger, both Ora and McCarthy-Wahlberg were correct that the star of Broadway’s “Gigi” was their winner.

“It’s honestly the most incredible thing ever. I’ve just been so excited to take my mask off and stare into Rita’s eyes and be like ‘Girl, this is why I couldn’t hang out with you,’” Hudgens, a longtime friend of Ora’s, exclaimed after the reveal.

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“I was like, ‘What’s going on with Vanessa? She always texts me back’ — but now it’s because you were here,” Ora yelled back from the judges’ seats.

The “High School Musical” star had been asked to join the show several times but decided this time to give her fans a taste of what they’ve been missing in her time away from music, Hudgens told ET.

“My fans had been asking, saying, ‘We want more music, we want singing anything, give it to us please.’ And I was like, ‘You know, this would be a really interesting way to give my fans what they want, but make sure they’re really fans,’” she said. “And they are!”

But the Queen of Coachella, so named because of her remarkable outfits at the annual Southern California music festival, admitted that she would probably stick to the screen for the immediate future.

The actor’s “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” opens in theaters on June 7. It’s the fourth film in the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence buddy cop action comedy franchise. Hudgens also co-starred in the third movie, “Bad Boys for Life.”

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“I always say life is about priorities and [music’s] just not a top priority right now,” the new mom said. “Who knows? Maybe down the line, maybe it will be, but as of now, it’s still no.”

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Short Film Review: Karita (2023) by Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda

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Short Film Review: Karita (2023) by Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda

“So I came here…”

Headed by actress-turned-director Virginia de Witt and Koji Ueda, a Kyoto-born Tokyo-based director, photographer, and filmmaker, “Karita” is a film inspired by the manga series “Nana”, while trying to answer the question, what if “Lost in Translation” was cast with the “Fleabag” character. The 17-minute short will be premiering at the Dances With Films Festival on June 22nd in Los Angeles.

The film begins with a series of impressive images from nighttime Tokyo, while the ominous music suggests that something dangerous is about to happen. The next scene has two women walking in the streets during the day, as Nico, an American, is shown around Tokyo by her friend
and supervisor at a local record store, Rumi. The camera is shaky and the cuts frantic, while there is a different dialogue heard in the background. The next, dominated by neon pink lights scene, brings us to the location the dialogue is taking place, inside a bar, where the two girls are talking to two boys and one girl, with Nico asking them if they have ever done anything dangerous. One of the boys, Ren, starts talking about people stealing cars. Nico shares her own experience in the US, which makes everyone in the table rather amused.

The night continues with a lot of drinking and eventually, Rumi decides to go home, cautioning her friend not to do anything stupid, before she goes. The next scene takes place in a garage with a sports car, which belongs to the uncle of the second of the boys in the company, Kenji. Suki, the other girl, who is quite drunk, insists they take the car for a drive, despite the yakuza-like uncle having specifically cautioned his nephew otherwise. In the end, with Ren in the driver’s seat, they take a drive around Tokyo.

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Unfolding much like a road-movie/music video, “Karita” will definitely stand out due to its impressive visuals, with Koi Ueda’s cinematography, in combination with the impressive lighting and coloring, capturing night time Tokyo in the most impressive fashion. Curtis Anthony Williams’s frequently frantic editing also adds to this sense, while the rather fast pace definitely suits the overall aesthetics here.

At the same time, there is a part of the movie that is quite realistic as the group visit various locations, as a pier, a convenience store, the record store, and the aftermaths of getting drunk and doing stupid things is also highlighted. A pinch of humor, as in the whole concept of the uncle and Suki’s actions, and some notions of romance, cement the rather entertaining narrative here.

Virginia de Witt plays the foreigner that tries to appear cool in order to fit in with gusto, while Haruka Hirata as Rumi is quite convincing as the “cautious” friend, with the chemistry of the two also being on a very high level, presenting a rather kawaii relationship between them. The other actress that stands out here is Mika Ushiko, who is quite convincing as the drunk Suki.

As mentioned before though, the aspect that makes “Karita” stand out is definitely its production values, which are on a level very rarely met in short films, while being the main reason the movie definitely deserves a watch. All in all, a very appealing film, in an effort that intrigues on what the filmmakers could do with a bigger budget in their hands, that would allow them to explore the script and the characters more.

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