Bill Pohlad: The man who would be king

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2010 - 1:13 PM

Indie film is badly in need of a new hero. Enter Bill Pohlad.

Producer Bill Pohlad attends the Premiere of "Bright Star" Presented by Vanity Fair & Apparition at Paris Theatre on September 14, 2009 in New York, New York. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Vanity Fair) Bill Pohlad

Photo: Jamie Mccarthy, Getty Images For Vanity Fair

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The American independent film marketplace is in Chicken Little mode. Blockbuster-minded studios have amputated their indie arms. Bidding wars are ancient history. A new age of digital distribution pits theatrical exhibitors against Google and Microsoft. The final blow came Jan. 28 when Miramax Films, which brought art-house cinema to mainstream America, ceased operations after 31 years.

Filmmakers and film lovers alike wondered who would do the risky business of acquiring and marketing sophisticated small films.

Like an eager understudy stepping into a lead role, Bill Pohlad -- the soft-spoken heir to one of Minnesota's greatest fortunes -- aims to succeed where so many have failed. His new venture called Apparition has lofty ambitions to become a key player in this brave new indie world.

"Miramax in the '90s is exactly the part of the market we want," said Pohlad, referring to the heyday of "Pulp Fiction," "Shakespeare in Love" and "The English Patient."

Pohlad, who once trained as a Formula race car driver, is not afraid of competition or carefully calculated risk. He's put his fortune where his mouth is, funding the enterprise personally.

His six-month-old distribution house already has a solid track record, balancing appeal to teen viewers and older audiences. Apparition's sumptuous period biographies "The Young Victoria" and "Bright Star" won four Oscar nominations. Its modestly budgeted crime thriller "Boondock Saints II" has earned over $10 million domestically, and its blaxploitation spoof "Black Dynamite" promises to become a DVD cult favorite.

"I took my 19-year-old son to a screening of it in Los Angeles and he's been reciting lines from it for a week," said Timothy Rhys, publisher of the indie-film journal MovieMaker magazine. "If they continue to make great choices like they have so far, I think they've got a shot. They're smart guys."

Surveying the ruins of Miramax, laid waste by years of creative drift and reckless investments, Pohlad sees an opportunity -- "the audience hasn't gone away" -- and a clear moral: "You've got to go in with a mix of humility and confidence. Once you start to think you know it all, things usually start to go bad. So it's keeping your ego in check."

That's atypical of an industry famed for phone-throwers and table pounders, but it's pure Bill, said his eldest brother, Jim.

"He's never been a wild guy or hugely outgoing," he said. "He's always been shy, but I think he's gotten less so over the years as his confidence grows."

The long climb to 'Brokeback Mountain'

Pohlad, 54, is the rare movie mogul who can say "I never like to do something opportunistic" without triggering burglar alarms.

It took him some time to find his niche. His zeal for international auto racing led him to study at elite driving schools, but his earliest passion was films.

As a child he accompanied his father, Carl, whose investments included film production and distribution companies, to Hollywood sound stages. At 12 he saw "2001: A Space Odyssey," which opened his eyes to the imaginative heights that films could reach. While attending Edina High School he devoured the latest releases at the Edina Theatre.

"I think when the movie 'Grand Prix' came out, it connected the dots," Jim Pohlad said. "He still is interested in Formula 1 racing, but the movie stuff just went on an accelerating track."

He worked as an intern at Robert Redford's Sundance filmmakers program, then founded the Minneapolis company River Road Entertainment in 1987 to make independent films. Three years later the 33-year-old neophyte directed the feature film "Old Explorers," a $2 million project underwritten by his father and Irwin Jacobs. James Whitmore and Jose Ferrer starred as retirees who daydream of high adventure in exotic locales. The film was quickly forgotten -- "a pleasant trifle," said the Star Tribune review -- and the distributor buried it.

After a stint as assistant director on the baseball comedy "Little Big League," Pohlad steered River Road to commercial, corporate and documentary work, including film profiles of Prince, Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett and Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Dowling, and in-flight entertainment for Northwest Airlines. The urge to enter big-league film production was strong, but he bided his time, searching for meaningful stories that moved him.

His breakthrough came in 2005 with Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," a risky project that many others rebuffed. He financed the $10 million production without taking out a loan. The film went on to make more than $200 million worldwide and win three Oscars.

Burned on Sean Penn movie

Pohlad has personal reasons for expanding his reach from production to film distribution. In 2007, River Road Entertainment backed Sean Penn's story of youthful rebellion "Into the Wild." The Oscar-nominated drama foundered at the box office as its distributor, Paramount, attended to other films on its crowded release schedule.

Pohlad got the impression the studio didn't care so much about the film, said his partner in Apparition, New York industry veteran Bob Berney. When a big studio markets an indie picture, "you give up your baby, then it's gone," Berney said.

Pohlad created Apparition to take matters into his own hands. The company aims to reflect the refined taste and integrity that characterize Pohlad's film productions.

With issue-oriented films like the Oscar-nominated agribusiness exposé "Food Inc." and "Fair Game," a forthcoming drama about the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson (starring Naomi Watts), Pohlad tries to make a positive impact culturally and even spiritually.

"I would say they're spiritual in the sense of thoughtful -- more than just action," said Jim Pohlad. "He clearly chooses movies that reach him on a level greater than I might feel. They touch him. He's very thoughtful about that -- sometimes [middle brother] Bob and I think maybe to a fault, rather than talking about this movie making money."

They do have a bit of a cushion, of course. When their father died in January 2009, he left a fortune that Forbes magazine estimated at $3.6 billion.

Together, the Pohlad brothers now manage the family's portfolio of investments, with Jim running the Twins franchise, Bob operating the giant soft drink bottler PepsiAmericas and Bill making movie deals from his family's offices on the 40th floor of the Dain Rauscher building in downtown Minneapolis.

A big splash at Sundance

Turning rarefied films into commercial hits is a mission that Pohlad's partner is well qualified to tackle. Berney, a theater owner's son who rose to president of the Warner-owned indie distributor Picturehouse, became a marketing legend with such films as "Whale Rider," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Pan's Labyrinth."

The genteel, long-haired Pohlad and shrewd, down-to-earth Berney have a relationship dating back seven years, when they crossed paths at the Telluride film fest. Berney recalls feeling Pohlad's desire to get in the moviemaking game.

"Bill is wildly ambitious but quiet," Berney said. "I think it's incredible that from watching films he's come so far, actually bringing these films to the screen. It's one thing if you have the financial capability to do that, but then being able to effect it artistically -- that's good."

In late January the two made their first joint trip to Sundance with a Pohlad- produced film to show: the rock 'n' roll drama "The Runaways," with "Twilight" stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. Hundreds were turned away from sold-out screenings. The premiere was "terrific," said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of the nationwide arthouse chain Landmark Theatres.

In Mundorff's view, "there's never been a greater time to be in the independent film business," as competitors close and opportunities open. "I think Apparition is well on its way to being a very, very successful company," he said. "They're offering smart, diverse product."

Apparition has a staff of 26 in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago crafting the ads, selecting the theaters and weighing factors as diverse as opening-week weather, the TV sports schedule and the target audience's bedtime.

Case in point: the royal romance "The Young Victoria," which opened in the Twin Cities and seven other markets a week before Christmas. Berney suspected the likely audience -- older moviegoers -- would buy the most tickets at 7 p.m. showings. He personally lobbied the Landmark-owned Edina Cinema to put it on two screens. The theater manager was skeptical, but it filled both auditoriums for early shows.

"'Young Victoria' has been a nice success story," said Landmark's Mundorff. "I expect it to do $10 million domestically." Another Apparition costume drama, "Bright Star," also performed well.

Pohlad appreciates the hands-on approach: "It is very personal, which is much more toward our sensibilities than some big corporate deal."

'I want to see 'em at home'

The Pohlad family is currently Apparition's sole investor.

"We have some great freedom because of Bill's backing," Berney said, but added that his partner is no philanthropic patron of the arts: "If you're looking for Medici Brothers Distribution, they're up the street."

The firm is expected to turn a profit in due time, seeking outside capital and strategic partners as it grows. It's already affiliated with Sony Pictures, which oversees DVD and TV sales while Apparition distributes the films theatrically.

"Apparition knows what they need to do, which is pour money into marketing and advertising to create must-see movies," said Rhys of MovieMaker magazine. "When you have movies like 'Avatar' saturating thousands of screens, it's harder for a 'Bright Star' to shine through."

The rough and tumble world of distribution requires some artistic flexibility from Pohlad. The bloody and preposterous crime sequel "Boondock Saints II" has been Apparition's biggest success. Acquired by Berney, it's an odd companion to the more artistic-minded films on Apparition's slate.

"It's not to Bill's personal taste," admitted Berney.

Apparition had a hectic debut, releasing four films in four months. Rather than follow the soar-and-crash trajectory of indie studios past, the plan is to go more slowly, handling five films this year -- including "The Runaways," slated for release March 19, and the Pohlad-produced "Tree of Life," Terrence Malick's long-gestating family epic starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Next year the slate will expand to seven or eight.

There are no guarantees in the movie business, but Pohlad makes one promise: The Twin Cities will be a first-opening market for every movie Apparition releases. No more waiting for weeks to see quality movies that open first in Los Angeles and New York.

"I want to see 'em," he said. "I want to see 'em at home."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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