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Larry Ellison's filmmaker daughter finds that art pays off

What do "Her," "American Hustle," "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Master" and "True Grit" have in common? They were all produced by Megan Ellison, the 27-year-old daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

For the third year since 2011, her films are box office hits and contenders for major Hollywood awards.

Megan Ellison
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Megan Ellison

On Friday, 'Her,' starring Joachim Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, expands to 1,700 additional screens after grossing $3.2 million in limited release. The Spike Jonze film about a man who falls in love with an advanced operating system has a 92 percent rating from critics compiled by RottenTomatoes. It's up for three Golden Globes at Sunday night's awards ceremony: Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy; Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

"Her" is going up against another film her Annapurna Pictures produced, "American Hustle," which has been nominated for seven Golden Globes—Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Screenplay, and all four acting prizes. The film, which cost a reported $40 million, has already grossed $90 million in the U.S. and $17 million overseas and is expected to get a big box office boost from awards attention.

Both films are likely to get Academy Award nods when the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 16.

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It's unusual for a producer to have two films nominated for Best Picture at both awards shows in the same year, let alone multiple years in a row. Last year, she produced "Zero Dark Thirty," which drew five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and grossed $133 million worldwide. She also produced "The Master," which was nominated for three Academy Awards, though it grossed only $28 million. Back in 2010 she was an executive producer on the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit," which was a surprise hit, grossing $171 million and drawing 10 Oscar nominations for the 2011 awards show.

Ellison doesn't do interviews and keeps a low profile in Hollywood, other than her Twitter feed, but has developed a reputation for using her fortune to place bets on filmmakers in whom she believes,and making movies the studios would be less inclined to make. She lays out her mission statement on Annapurna Pictures' website, saying the company's goal is to create "sophisticated, high-quality films that might otherwise be deemed risky by contemporary Hollywood studios. The company, which many consider to be a one-stop shop for filmmakers, has provided the industry with a critical boost of mature, adult dramas in recent years."

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What she's referring to is the fact that the big Hollywood studios are releasing fewer movies every year, focusing on sequels, proven brands and reboots, which perform more predictably and do better overseas. As a counterpoint to that popcorn fare, Ellison seems to care about more than just the bottom line, as a patron of the arts of sorts, and sources say she perhaps spends a bit more money to produce films than the general marketplace would bear.

In many cases it has paid off in droves—"Zero Dark Thirty" and "True Grit" were huge hits, as is "American Hustle" this year. But when making an artsier movie with a big director there's always a risk an investment won't pay off. Sometimes it doesn't, like with "The Master," which cost a reported $32 million and brought in just $28 million at the worldwide box office, according to Box Office Mojo.

Annapurna isn't allied with a single studio. Rather, Ellison pays for the film, then negotiates with a studio to distribute the movie (in the case of "American Hustle," it's Sony, for "Her" it's Warner Bros.)

Though she doesn't discuss her business, here's how this type of deal generally works: Annapurna will strike a deal and enter into a distribution agreement with a studio, often before a movie is shot, based on the script and stars. The studio generally puts up the costs of distribution and advertising (called P&A in the biz), in exchange for getting those costs repaid, as well as a fee. For some of her movies, she has a foreign presales company, called Panorama Media, to cover costs.

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Though Ellison has been in the headlines for her films, she's also been drawing attention for her real estate deals. She reportedly spent $30 million on two Hollywood Hills properties, including a $20 million, 9,200 square foot futuristic home that has been used in various movies, after reportedly selling a three house compound nearby for $47 million. Ellison hasn't confirmed any of these details.

The Ellisons seem to have a penchant for high-end real estate—back in 2004 and 2005 Larry Ellison reportedly spent more than $180 million on 12 properties in Malibu, including $65 million on five contiguous lots on Carbon Beach. And then there his purahce of an entire Hawaiian island.

(Read more: With Hawaiian Island Larry Ellison Extends His Spending Spree

Megan isn't the only Ellison to make waves in Hollywood. Her older brother, 31-year-old David, runs Skydance Productions, which has made more mainstream flicks, "Star Trek into Darkness," "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol," and "World War Z."

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter @JBoorstin.

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