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Facetime: 'Tree of Life' producer Bill Pohlad talks about the state of independent cinema

Pohlad, whose River Road Entertainment also produced 'Brokeback Mountain,' has made a name co-financing commercially challenging and often controversial specialty pictures at larger budgets than the independent-film world normally musters.

July 07, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • "I wasn't raised on art-house cinema or even foreign films. I was raised in a mainstream environment," Bill Pohlad says. "Movies like '2001' were the ones I grew up with. But getting into the business, I wanted to do something different and had a passion for."
"I wasn't raised on art-house cinema or even foreign films.… (River Road )

As Terrence Malick's expensive and ambitious "The Tree of Life" continues to roll out across the country, it doesn't just mark the audacious work of a veteran American director.

It represents the latest big gamble for Bill Pohlad and his Minneapolis production and financing company River Road Entertainment.

Beginning with 2005's breakout hit "Brokeback Mountain," a love story about two cowboys, and continuing with "Brokeback" director Ang Lee's racy "Lust, Caution," Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's haunting nonfiction book "Into the Wild," the Valerie Plame tale "Fair Game" and the family drama "Tree," starring Brad Pitt, Pohlad has made a name co-financing commercially challenging and often controversial specialty pictures at larger budgets than the independent-film world normally musters.

In the last two years, Pohlad, whose late father, Carl, was a self-made mogul and the owner of the Minnesota Twins (Bill Pohlad sits on the team's executive board), has watched many of his onetime competitors disappear and a new crop of financiers enter the independent realm. Facetime caught up with him to talk about the state of the independent market, the gamble on "Tree" and the evolution of his own company.

How have you outlasted many of your rivals when your movies have often yielded modest box-office results?

We wanted to be in this for the long haul. At the beginning you're always going to do things that are maybe a little riskier because you want to establish yourself. And that could get some people in trouble. We did a little of that. But we've also kept our overhead low — we don't have big offices, just some people in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. So it's not a big operation. We also haven't had a ton of things in development.

It took you three years to get "Tree of Life" from the set to the big screen, and a lot of postproduction dollars spent in the process. Some estimate the film cost $40 million to $50 million to make, and so far it has grossed about $8 million domestically and $19.6 million abroad. Are you worried about taking a loss on it?

Who knows how ultimately it's going to turn out? But there's so much in it that's great, and I'm proud of it as a piece of filmmaking and the experience we had with it. I would love it if we came out on the positive side [financially], but it's not the only criterion in this case, because it's such a special film.

Did your own background and tastes give you an appetite for specialty films instead of more commercial entertainment?

As opposed to a lot of film people or the stories they'll tell you, I wasn't raised on art-house cinema or even foreign films. I was raised in a mainstream environment. Movies like "2001" were the ones I grew up with. But getting into the business, I wanted to do something different and had a passion for. I always wanted the company to have a personality and not just be the result of a committee or a corporate decision.

There's been an influx of new money into upscale independent films from companies such as Steven Rales' Indian Paintbrush and Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, and they seem willing to spend a lot more than even the specialty divisions at the studios typically do. Is that good for the business?

I think that's the way it's always been; there always seems to be a flow of money from new sources. It hasn't always required the industry to be as thoughtful, because it could always count on a new wave. And we seem to be going through that again. But I'm not worried. The companies that are smart will still be here years from now. I'm hopeful that's us. But I think there will be room for many others.

But do you believe there will be room? As we've seen, every few years there's a shakeout in the independent business because there are too many companies chasing too few box-office and DVD dollars.

In some ways I've always thought the film business really isn't as competitive as other businesses, because it's not like you're going head-to-head with anyone else. You're trying to make the best movie you can and get as many people to see it as you can. So I don't think there has to be a limit on the amount of companies.

What drives so many of these independent film companies out of business, then?

I think you have to buck the trend that a lot of companies haven't bucked. You can't just throw money at a few movies and go to some parties. For example, we said from the beginning we didn't want to do that. And I'm sure no one believed us.

How has your business strategy changed since you started River Road and since closing down your distribution operation Apparition last year?

When I first started [River Road] I was interested in financing films and I wasn't involved creatively. That's evolved over time. Now we're getting to a place where we want more and we're developing and fully producing, like we're doing with the [recently announced] Brian Wilson movie, as opposed to being one of those companies that's just along for the ride.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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