(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
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Good morning, aviators. This is your captain speaking.
After 36 years, Tom Cruise is back in a fighter jet.
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And we’re off.
He’s starring in “Top Gun, Maverick.”
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3, 2, 1.
As most people know, I love the original “Top Gun.” And I’m not the only one. My guest, David Ellison, loves it so much that he pushed for a decade to get a sequel made. Unlike me, Ellison had the power to make that happen. He’s the founder and C.E.O. of Skydance Media, which is behind the new release. Ellison had a rocky start in Hollywood. He’s the son of tech mogul, Larry Ellison. And after showing up in Hollywood in the 2000s, he funded some films that, frankly, tanked. But since then, he’s turned things around. Now his company seems to have become a Hollywood success story. So I wanted to ask Ellison how he righted the ship, what he thinks of Silicon Valley’s relationship with Hollywood and get the story behind the new “Top Gun.”
David, welcome to “Sway.”
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Thanks. So I just want to say, I went to the premiere in London. You’re trying to get me excited. I’m very excited about “Top Gun.” I think “Top Gun” is one of my favorite movies, and I have a deep love of it in spite of myself. So when did you decide to make a sequel of it?
So, like you, the movie could not mean more to me. It’s one of my favorite of all times. I will never forget seeing the film when I was a little kid because it was the movie that made me want to become a pilot. And I started flying airplanes when I was 13 years old and then started flying air shows when I was 17, 18 — and had the privilege of going up with the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. And I can’t tell you how many pilots of my generation watch that movie and said, that’s what they want to do one day.
You did acrobatics, right? You did aerial acrobatics.
Yeah, I started flying competition aerobatics. Sold it in a German-made Extra 300L when I was 16 years old. I failed my drive test the same day. But yeah, no, I started flying when I was 16 and kind of did air shows until I was 22, and was actually going to film school at the time and kind of decided to kind of hang up the competitive aerobatics basically for school at U.S.C.
So it took 10 years to develop the sequel. Now, a lot of things go into sequel pretty quickly. Talk about why it took so long.
Yeah, it was 10 years to develop the movie. And first, I have to say, the only reason we were able to make a sequel is because of what Tom, Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer did on that first movie, which, as you said, was iconic and very much helped define a generation in terms of cinema.
In terms of the sequel, it was the first movie I wanted to make when we originally signed our deal with Paramount to co-produce and co-finance pictures back in 2010. There was nothing in development, but given how formative the film had been to me in my life, I really wanted to make a sequel to it because I thought there was something incredibly interesting about exploring Maverick at this point in time in his life. And —
Mm-hmm, who hasn’t changed at all, by the way, but go ahead. Hasn’t changed one bit in, what, 30 years or whatever.
Yeah, I will say Tom is a little singular, in that regard. But you know, the goal that we really had is we wanted to get the original group of filmmakers back together. And so, my journey on “Top Gun” started in a meeting with Tony Scott.
Tony Scott is the director, who has since died.
Yes, the late great Tony Scott, where I talked to him about a sequel, and he promptly said no several times. And we were actually in a meeting for another project when I brought up “Top Gun” at the end of the meeting, and Tony finally said, OK, pitch me something. If you’re really this serious, please pitch me something. So I went home, did a tremendous amount of research, went over to RSA, knowing that it was, as these things can be, always a long shot. And Tony said yes in the room.
Mm-hmm, and so what were the challenges of doing that?
The biggest challenge is with and why the movie took 10 years was, for starters, it was all about the script. Tom was very clear that he was not going to make a sequel until he thought the screenplay and the story was worthy of that. You know, that was the film that really helped launch Tom into kind of singular movie star status that he currently sits atop of. And the mantra on the movie was, this isn’t a bullseye movie. This is hitting a bullet with a bullet. And we’re not going to start making this movie until we have it right. And when we started making the movie, it was, we are going to continue to work on it until it got to a place that everybody was happy with.
Well, because there’s a lot of shitty sequels. When they come back, you sort of cringe. And many of the sequels, they’re not very good in general.
And that is exactly what we did not want to do.
Now what was interesting, in some of the reviews, people are sort of shocked that it’s good. I was like, the original was good. One of the headlines that I thought was funny, it was, “Against All Odds, ‘Top Gun, Maverick’ is Actually Good.” Why do you think people have that idea of this particular movie? Because it was a good movie when it was out. It was an iconic movie.
Yeah, no, look, I think it’s always — especially it’s, when you make a sequel 36 years later, which doesn’t happen very often, I think it’s sometimes easy to be cynical. And I think expectations are really high. When I think about what this movie meant to me and what it means to so many, I think people are understandably apprehensive about whether or not anything would ever be done to kind of tarnish the legacy of the franchise. We understood that.
And it’s why we really set the bar as high as humanly possible. You know, from our standpoint — and I learned this very early on — quality is always the best business plan. You always have to aim as high as humanly possible. And there is nobody who embodies that characteristic more than Tom Cruise.
So that’s an interesting thing because there’s parallels between the film’s handling of “Maverick” as the last of a dying breed, and Cruise is one of the few — he really is one of the few old school action stars. Can you talk a little bit about that?
He is. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Ed Harris looks at Maverick and says, your kind is headed for extinction. And Maverick says, “Maybe so, sir, but not today.”
Right, yeah, a great line.
And there’s so much I think in this particular moment in time, as people are just starting to come back to the movies and the conversation that’s taking place around the big screen in general, which we could not be more supportive of. And this movie in particular is designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible and really is a love letter to aviation. It’s a love letter to fighter pilot culture. And it’s a celebration of the big screen, the big screen experience.
So talk about that because one of the things I walked away from is, movies have changed rather dramatically, even the ones — “Star Trek,” you’re making. They’re faster, they’re quicker. This is a very traditional movie, in a way that I haven’t seen in a while. Did you think about that when you were making it, the idea of more traditional when younger people are either attached to superheroes, or they’re not used to the pacing of it? How did you — did you think about that?
We did. We definitely talked about wanting to capture a lot of the spirit of what the ‘80s movies were, but really update it for today in terms of honoring the sequel. And then the other thing that we were just adamant about from day one was, we were going to shoot everything real. Tom was adamant that everybody go up in the F-18.
And so we actually put together a training program where it was three months for the entire cast, where they graduated from flying Cessna 172s to Extra 300s, then flying L-39 with the Patriots Jet Team, and then ultimately being ready to step into the F-18. Because when you shoot that type of photography reel, it is an entirely different experience for the audience.
Right, and when you think about the other movies, do you see doing a lot of movies like that? Because people are used to this highly computerized version of movies, essentially.
I think it always depends on the story. And I think you always have to approach it as what better suits that story. I will say, having had the privilege of making — “Top Gun” is number six. The next two missions will be seven and eight with Tom. There has always been a philosophy to do everything real. Because when it’s in camera, it is a different experience for the audience. If it can be done real and in camera, that is something that we have done across all of the mission movies.
Right, who was hanging off that thing, right?
The Burj Khalifa, yeah, no, I will never forget that being in Dubai. Skydance was a year old. And it was remarkable. I was sitting there when Tom actually stepped outside onto that building. It was close to the 150th floor. You got a pit in your stomach staring at Video Village that day. And it’s just, when the audience sees that, you know they’re going to experience that. And one of the things that has always amazed me about Tom is the extraordinary lengths that he will go to, to entertain an audience.
Yeah, he really — that’s one of his big things. He always wants to give their money’s worth. So I want to talk about your Hollywood origin story. People may assume you have an easy ride into Hollywood, given your father is Larry Ellison and gave you money. He told me about it. He told me. And actually, one night, he gave me a lot of details about how much money he gave you and your sister, who is also a filmmaker.
But you did some early projects, like “Flyboys” and “Northern Lights,” and they struggled. And you started in acting, and then you moved behind the scenes. Talk about that journey, because what went wrong there in terms of you moving into acting versus really, essentially, being a business person and producer?
Well, being a terrible actor, for starters, would be one of the problems. And —
OK, there’s a lot of terrible actors, but move along. Go.
No, no, it’s — so my story really started with, you know, I was fortunate, I mean incredibly, incredibly privileged to have some incredible mentors in this business, one of which was Steve Jobs, who was my dad’s best friend and was very much —
Yeah, people don’t know that. They have very similar backgrounds in a lot of ways.
They do, they do. And Steve was very kind to me. Actually, there’s this story with Skydance that — a meeting I had with him that very much changed the trajectory of the company. When we were first starting Skydance, I asked Steve to pitch him the company. And Steve was very kind. He said, fly up here tomorrow.
And I pitched him the company. And he looked at me and said, I don’t think this will work. And I asked him why. And he talked about Pixar. He’s like, 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 he’s like, because that’s what we did at Pixar.
What was your pitch? Was it more about financing and —
It was much more about financing. It was much more around the franchises that we were going to become a part of. And Steve’s point was, if the movie’s not good, it doesn’t matter that it’s a sequel to a franchise. People still won’t go. And he looked at me at Pixar and talked a lot about the golden age of cinema and the Walt Disney system and how free agency was ultimately created when Walt didn’t really take care of all of the talent at that period of time.
And what Steve basically did was he recruited the most talented artists in the world to work at Pixar. They were all partners in the company on top of being filmmakers. And they aimed incredibly high creatively and had a track record and a run that is still, to this day, unprecedented. They did that by aiming high and never stopping work on a movie until they thought it was ready to be released.
Right. So the Ellison family is a major investor in Skydance, correct? Is your dad- –
— involved in the business?
Yeah, no, my family is the largest shareholder in the business. Tencent, CJ Entertainment and RedBird Capital Partners are also partners in Skydance. My dad is supportive, but we’ve thankfully built a multibillion dollar business. And I have to address him as you would any other shareholder when it comes to it. He gave me an incredible opportunity by believing in me in the beginning. I could not be more grateful for that. And we definitely talk about work constantly and work together constantly. But he’s been an incredible mentor and guide throughout all of this.
So I’d love you to discuss the influence of your mother. That’s one thing he actually said. One of the things he said to me, I said, your kids seem really nice. They seem — for growing up so wealthy. And he said, oh, it’s because I didn’t raise them. Their mother did, which I thought it was unusual coming out of his mouth, I’ll be honest with you. But talk about the influence of your mom in this.
God, I don’t have enough words to describe how influential my mom’s been in my life. But he’s correct. My mother did raise me. My parents got divorced when I was three. And I grew up predominantly with my mom. And you know, she did the incredibly impossible job of being a single parent to two kids and really set everything aside to raise me and my sister.
Mm-hmm, and also love of movies, correct?
Absolutely, my love of movies really helped start with my mom, where one of the things the two of us would do is, we would go to the theater and see anything that came out every weekend that it came out, sometimes maybe a little bit too early. Jokingly, seeing “Terminator 2” at eight was maybe questionable, but.
Yeah, oh, you don’t know.
But I obviously loved that.
I took my son to “Sausage Party,” and I consider it my worst parenting mistake of my life.
I went to the preview of that with my sister. I was just dying laughing out loud, but —
I understand, but you don’t want to go with a 14-year-old.
But yes, we don’t really want — yes —
That’s like a teenager — you know —
He looked over at me, and he said, “Awkward. You’re a terrible parent.” And I’m like, I am. I don’t know what to do at this moment. So let’s keep watching.
Definitely rated R.
But your mother took you to “Terminator 2,” which was the best “Terminator,” actually.
Agreed, and look, and the thing — you brought up my sister. One of the things — my mom had an incredible VHS collection that I actually still have. She had about 2,000 VHS tapes. And my sister and I would always go into the VHS closet and basically pick a series. And our idea of a great time was just finding a franchise to binge all of in one day. And so, we would watch the “Star Wars” saga from start to finish in a day. We’d watch the “Rocky” films from start to finish in a day. And so really, a lot of my love of cinema and film really came from my childhood with my mom.
Right, so talk a little bit — the idea of coming into Hollywood, many at first thought you were dumb money, like a lot of people. This is not a new, fresh Hollywood thing. You now, given the success — smart money, but money nonetheless. Talk a little bit about that, that idea of when you show up, they think you’re the dumb rich kid, right, presumably. How did you deal with that?
Put my head down, did the work, personally. And then I believe, above everything, we are a business of people. And you know, I was very fortunate, as I said, to have mentors like Steve Jobs and David v and Skip Brittenham. And I listened and, I think, avoided a lot of mistakes by being able to stand on their shoulders gratefully and really listen to the advice. But then also, I tried to partner and hire at Skydance the smartest people possible. And now, when you look around our senior leadership team, one of the things I am the most proud of is the incredible group of people I get to come to work with every day.
Yeah, I want to talk a little bit, speaking of something that was harder for you, is Pixar co-founder, John Lasseter. You hired him in 2019 after he left Disney after MeToo complaints. It had got a lot of negative publicity. The Hollywood Reporter quoted a source who said Lasseter, quote, “Was known for grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes.” He’s talked about this. What did you learn from that? And what would you do differently? He’s obviously still there. Talk a little bit about what you learned from that.
I learned a tremendous amount from that. First, I don’t have any regrets about hiring John Lasseter. He has been remarkable to work with. And I could not be more proud of the movies that we’re creating and the artists that we’re working with.
But you did seem to be dealing with a lot of problems. Women at Skydance apparently were crying when he was appointed. So talk a little bit about how you dealt with that and what you think about the weirdness among some in tech and Hollywood about #MeToo and politics in the workplace.
So what I really learned and what I regret is how I handled it. We did a very, very thorough investigation. And basically, we talked to all of our senior leadership. And Skydance has been a 50-50 company. So from that standpoint, we talked to everybody in leadership. But the way we handled it was not great.
Why do you mean by that?
The way we announced it out into the world, we should have listened more. We should have talked to more people externally and internally. And I really do believe we could have handled it a lot better. But as I said, I stand by the decision. And I think when you look forward at the work that we’re doing, I hope that the work will be able to speak for what we’re building and how special I really believe it is.
Right, but such is the work, right? I mean, there is a weariness. I’ve met with so many Hollywood people now that are like, no more #MeToo. And I’m like, I don’t know if you can move along quite so quickly, but it’s definitely been changed, the way things are run in Hollywood. How did you change?
So, as I said, Skydance has been a 50-50 company.
This is 50 men and women.
That’s correct. From our standpoint, again, trying to answer the question the best I possibly can, which is, really, I regret how we announced it out into the world. I think we could have listened and learned more in terms of everybody that we talked to. But in terms of kind of, our founding ideals and believing in a 50-50 culture and believing in supporting equal rights for all artists, that’s how we believed in and felt since day one. That hasn’t changed. It was the same in 2010 as it is today in terms of our viewpoint on the world. I think what we really didn’t understand was the moment that we were living in.
And the way that we handled it, we could have done a much, much better job. And that was a wake up call to me. That was probably my hardest professional experience, was that time period in the beginning of Q1 of 2019. And you know, I have learned a tremendous amount since then and have talked to a tremendous amount of people, both internally and externally. And really, the things that they’ve taught me have made me a better leader.
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Matt Belloni and Ben Smith. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with David Ellison after the break.
So who do you pattern yourself after? You did say in 2015, you wanted it to be Marvel. What did you mean by that? You don’t have a superhero. “Star Trek” was a franchise. “Terminator” was a franchise. “Top Gun” is a franchise.
So what I meant by that was a company that I tremendously look up to and admire. The qualities of movies that come out of Marvel are A+, pretty consistently. The idea to create an interconnected cinematic universe was transformative and never been done before on the big screen. And one of the thematics that we built Skydance on was the idea of where entertainment is heading, you know, the Gretzky quote of, “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck has been.”
And I think Marvel embodied all of those characteristics in terms of constantly delivering quality and constantly delivering something that the audience had never seen before, and doing things that were transformative in the industry. And so, I have nothing but admiration and respect for everything they built.
So talk about “Terminator.” Now I thought “Old Guard” was fantastic, by the way. I thought that should be a franchise. What a good movie.
We are four weeks out from shooting the second one.
Oh, great. This is with Charlize Theron, and it’s about an old guard of kickass people. I don’t know how else to put it. How would you describe it?
It is about a group of immortals. And I could not be more excited about the sequel, and very, very proud of the original movie.
By the way, Marvel’s immortals did not work as well. They did not apply excellence there, as I would say. But what didn’t work with the “Terminator” franchise — this is another franchise I adore. But “Genesis” and “Dark Fate” not work. What do you think went wrong there?
On “Genesis,” I think we needed to make a better movie. The movie made $440 million at the box office, but really underperformed domestically. And from the fan side, we heard and understood that they were not satisfied. And that was something we really took in and took to heart. On “Dark Fate,” I’m proud of the movie. And why it didn’t work has been a constant, basically, discussion and debate. But I do really believe in the movie that we made there. And on “Genesis,” I think we really could have done our jobs better.
May I give you a fan comment?
You can only blow up the world so many times. Ultimately, you’ve got to move to a different story.
Yeah. Well, one of the things we definitely talked about was the fact that we didn’t create enough new, and also that after a couple of series of negative installments, there was a need for a larger reset.
So let’s move on to streaming. You were very bullish on streaming early and sold a lot of shows into streaming, although you just made “Top Gun,” which is such a theater movie. When you think about the equilibrium of Hollywood, the economic equilibrium, where do you think the next thing is going to be? There’s, obviously, huge amounts of tech people involved. There’s all kinds of issues around Netflix and streaming, Warner Brothers. How do you look at it? I interviewed Bob Iger recently. He thought Disney was too small, even, and that there’s a lot that’s going to change. How do you look at it, as someone who’s selling into this environment?
So look, we are big believers in Netflix, Apple, and Amazon. Obviously, our animation deal is with Apple. Our first look live action deal is with Apple. They have been tremendous partners to us. Amazon has been a remarkable partner to us. We had “The Tomorrow War” with them last year, as well as “Without Remorse,” which were both very, very successful.
And similar, as we said, I’m big believers in Netflix and don’t think any of those companies are going anywhere. There are a lot of people, myself included, who believe we’re in the middle of a larger market correction. And while that will create challenges for companies, the companies that we’re talking about are world class and best in class and will be able to navigate that and I believe emerge stronger than ever.
Theatrical, people have been talking about its demise for a long period of time. First, they talked about its demise when television came out. People talked about that when the DVD business came about. As people, I believe we enjoy social experiences. And I think people will continue to go to the movies. And I think people are going to continue to have a tremendous amount of choice.
Sure, but it’s smaller. It continues to be smaller and smaller and smaller. It’s way lower than 2019.
Oh, absolutely. But I think we’re still coming out of the pandemic. And I think we’re going to have to see how the consumer basically evolves and how the marketplace evolves.
So you’re putting your bets everywhere. You’re just going to assume the tech companies are going to be strong players.
We believe tremendously in the direct to consumer business, absolutely.
All right, I have a couple more questions about the future of Skydance. You have a deal with Paramount that’s up in June, as you said. Will you renew?
So we signed a deal with Apple that started January of this year, which is a first look deal. But we still have a tremendous relationship with Paramount and a tremendous amount of ongoing business with them. All of the franchises that we’ve worked on, from “Mission Impossible” to “Top Gun,” to “Star Trek,” to “Transformers,” the Tom Clancy universe, we’re all continue making together. And we want to find more to do together as well. So we have a great relationship with Paramount.
All right, I have a few more questions. Beyond streaming, VR, are you preparing any Web3 or Metaverse things? Or are you just waiting for things to happen?
So we took a big bet in VR five years ago. We acquired a company called the Workshop, and our first game, “Archangel,” was kind of a VR mech shooter, but we were a little early on the market a couple of years ago. And then with “Walking Dead, Saints and Sinners,” the market really arrived.
Do you think the Metaverse is overhyped? This idea, it’s early. It’s certainly early.
It’s definitely early. But I do think — I’ll never forget personally the reason why I was so excited to get into virtual reality is, when I put on the headset, it was one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life. The last time I can remember in the interactive space feeling that way was when I was a kid, and “Super Mario Brothers” came out on Nintendo 64. And for the first time, you were inhabiting a three-dimensional world, as opposed to just the kind of flat 2D “Zelda” of going left or right.
And really, the ability to immerse yourself into a world that VR offered, we thought, was transformative. There was a lot of stuff to figure out. And the game has now sold several million units. And it has no sign of slowing down.
So I think you’re going to see the VR marketplace expand. Zuckerberg has very publicly talked about how many headsets he wants to get into people’s homes.
And I do believe that there is going to be a very significant market in terms of augmented reality and virtual reality, particularly as it comes to consumer experiences. We talk in animation, for example, it’s amazing to go to Disneyland and have that experience practically and meet the characters. But with augmented reality, you can now bring those characters into your home. So it’s something that we believe in tremendously. And we have several games that we’re creating in this space.
Yeah, just so you know who’s going to do it, it’s going to be Apple, not Facebook.
As I said, could not be bigger believers in that company.
Yeah, they love AR. The love AR over there. So there’s been speculation that Skydance will be acquired. Do you want to be acquired? I mean, being an independent company is tough. You can have great years and then not.
So we are not for sale. Our heads are down, and we’re building the business. Last year, we had an incredibly good year. It was actually the strongest year in the history of the company. And this year is already scheduled to be significantly better. We feel very good about where we are. And we’re very much in building mode, is kind of how we’re thinking about it.
So what is your end game then? Just let me quote your father. Everything’s for sale. But if not an acquisition, what’s your end game?
I view it as always wanting to create optionality. If the once in a lifetime opportunity came about to do something transformative inside of a large organization, you never want to say never, but that’s not something we’re actively exploring at the moment. We’ve talked about the ability to go public. But again, right now, we’re really kind of heads down, building the business.
So you’re not exploring any acquisitions at all. You’re not thinking about it.
Not at this moment in time, no.
OK, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your dad, this news about the Trump phone call that he was involved in. Now you’re in Hollywood, which is very liberal. Do you get impacted by that? I think — you’re not your dad. I’m not going to give you responsibility for what calls your father’s on in his businesses. So, but do you — does that affect your business there in Hollywood?
So, Kara, let me be really clear about a couple of things. One is, as I’m sure you can appreciate, there are more rumors about my father than truth these days. I mean — and while I would never want to speak for anybody in my family, I feel very, very comfortable, and it is very easy to say that everybody in my family believes it was a free and fair election and accepts the results of the election.
I am a socially liberal person myself, but you know, want to put that firmly on the record, so that there’s no questions.
OK, but it doesn’t affect you in your work. I just had a conversation like this with someone else who has a controversial spouse. And it’s like, I’m not that person.
The only thing I — it’s, I can only be myself. I can only let my own actions speak for me. And as it relates to my dad and my family, I love them dearly. There can always be complexities within families. But you know, I love all of them. And obviously, whether there’s any issues, anyone wants to talk about anything, I’m an open book in regards to that and will always talk to anybody about it.
Let me leave you with the last question. Are you Maverick, Goose or a rooster?
Haha. Can I say aspiring towards Maverick? Is that a fair answer?
Yeah, that can be. That’s fine. Or do you have another name?
No, no, no call signs on our side, but —
Mine is Chaos Monkey, after Elon Musk.
We’ll see how that goes. All right, David, thank you so much.
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski. The senior editor of “Sway” is Nayeema Raza. And the executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Irene Noguchi.
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