Minneapolis-based film producer William Pohlad is launching a new independent movie studio, he announced Thursday afternoon. Its initial releases will be "The Tree of Life," a mystical epic starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn and directed by Terrence Malick, and "Bright Star," a literary romance directed by Jane Campion.

The venture, called Apparition, will be headed by Bob Berney, a veteran studio executive. Its goal is to distribute seven or eight films a year that reflect the partners' "belief and passion in the material," Pohlad said.

The move is a major step forward for the soft-spoken Pohlad, who in just a few years has become one of Hollywood's most prominent financiers.

Pohlad, whose productions include "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Brokeback Mountain," envisions the new company as "a real home for filmmakers," marketing their work enthusiastically at a time when major studios, citing financial pressures, are shutting down their specialty distribution divisions.

Although Apparition will be based in New York, Pohlad said he expects the venture to reflect a Midwestern sensibility, operating "not only wisely but fairly. We hope that this distribution company will be a good home for filmmakers not only because we have a sensitivity and passion for the material, but that they'll feel it's a straightforward, honest place to do business."

His partner, Berney, founded or operated such distributors as IFC Films, Newmarket Films and Picturehouse, a division of Warner Bros. that released the Oscar-winning "La Vie en Rose" and "Pan's Labyrinth" but closed last year.

His résumé includes such hits as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "The Passion of the Christ," "Whale Rider" and "Y Tu Mama También."

"There's been a real need for this for quite a while," Berney said of the new venture. "With fewer companies in the marketplace, there's a need for filmmakers to have an outlet in the U.S. And it's a great time business-wise to be able to acquire films when there's much less competition in the marketplace. We want to reach people with films that wouldn't have a chance in the larger studio system."

As an example, he pointed to "Slumdog Millionaire," the indie film that won eight Academy Awards this year, including best picture. "There wasn't a formula for that," Berney said. "We'd like to prove the norm is wrong and show that a filmmaker telling an amazing story will supersede any theories about who goes to movies and why."

Berney will be the new firm's CEO and run day-to-day affairs from Apparition's New York office. The studio's name was chosen to suggest "something that's coming into view on the horizon that's really amazing and exciting," he said.

Apparition will acquire films, release them directly to theaters, create the marketing campaigns and work in partnership with Sony Pictures on U.S. rights for TV and DVD releases.

Its first two releases both feature prestigious directors -- Malick is a two-time Oscar nominee ("The Thin Red Line") while Campion won the directing Oscar for "The Piano" and was also nominated for its screenplay.

"We're really lucky and blessed to have those two filmmakers in the roster," Berney said. Campion's movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, is scheduled to open Sept. 18 in limited release.

A meeting of the minds

Pohlad and Berney met a decade ago at Cannes and recognized they shared similar tastes, interests and temperaments. They teamed four years ago on the Twin Cities-filmed "A Prairie Home Companion," which Pohlad produced and Picturehouse distributed.

Pohlad is the principal investor in the new venture. According to the trade paper Variety, sources put his initial investment at $30 million.

The youngest of the three sons of Twin Cities billionaire Carl Pohlad, who died in January, he is a lifelong movie fan who haunted the Edina Cinema theater every weekend as a kid.

First production: 'Brokeback'

In 1987 he started Minneapolis-based River Road Entertainment as a vehicle for his directing ambitions. His debut, "Old Explorers," starring James Whitmore and Jose Ferrer, was a qualified success: It got decent reviews and was widely seen, but failed to turn a profit. So during the 1990s, he focused on producing commercials, in-flight programming for Northwest Airlines and documentaries.

Pohlad grew frustrated with the business, however, and six years ago went to Los Angeles to reinvent himself as a film financier. He succeeded beyond all expectations with his first production -- "Brokeback Mountain" received eight Oscar nominations and earned more than $175 million worldwide.

Not coincidentally, Pohlad's River Road is producing the Malick film for Apparition. However, he told Variety that Apparition won't necessarily distribute future River Road productions, which include the rock 'n' roll biopic "The Runaways," starring Kristen Stewart ("Twilight") as Joan Jett, and "Fair Game," a drama about Valerie Plame, the CIA agent "outed" by Bush administration officials; it stars Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186