By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 6, 2009 at 6:38AM
Finally, ex-Picturehouse chief Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad of River Road Entertainment have announced their new company, Apparition, on the eve of taking Jane Campion's Cannes entry Bright Star to Telluride (my spies predict) and Toronto for a September 18 release.
The name is a strange choice: Apparition. It's hard to find names that aren't already taken, says Pohlad, who cites the visual connotation of the word: "It's a surprise or unexpected visual image." The name doesn't matter, really. What's important is that this news is inspiring a collective global film industry cheer that an enlightened, experienced hand at theatrical film distribution--someone willing to pick up foreign-language fare and documentaries as well as features--is filling the current void in the specialty film sector. "As other companies closed or cut back it left a gap in the marketplace," says Berney, "but the audience is still there. The films that have broken out in 2008 and 2009 have done tremendous business. The shakeout means fewer films in the marketplace, and filmmakers see a dire need."
It's an opportunity for Apparition, because the new reality has filmmakers giving their movies away in order to get them released in theaters. Berney warns, however, that the real costs are in prints and ads, anyway. Apparition has another four or five movies or so in the hopper that they aren't talking about yet. But they are announcing the release of River Road's long-awaited Terrence Malick opus, Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, for the end of the year--assuming that the finicky Malick finishes the movie. "We're still in process," says Berney. "Terry works on things right to the last minute."
River Road backed Sean Penn's Into the Wild, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, and Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion (released by Picturehouse). Pohlad been kicking around the idea of a distribution company for some years, he said. "I was nervous about it," he admitted, but when Berney (who shepherded such breakouts as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan's Labyrinth, La Vie en Rose, Monster, Memento and The Passion of the Christ into the marketplace) became available that was enough to kick him into forward motion. "It was important to be able to stand alone,"Pohlad said, and not have to be force-fed any films. He insists that he will not feed River Road projects to Apparition. Each will be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Going into Toronto, Berney and Pohlad are in cruise rather than active shopping mode. (Acquisitions vet Sara Rose, marketer Jeanne Berney and distributor Bill Thompson are rejoining Berney.) If something hits them, they'll snap it up. Berney, who has long enjoyed a close relationship with exhibitors, says he wants to keep an even flow of product, so as many as seven or eight movies could go out during 2010. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group is handling ancillary sales on Apparition titles. The company is still in acquisitions mode, so a foreign sales partner is not yet a pressing issue. Pohlad is not revealing his investor/partners at this time. "It took a long time to get this up and going," he said. "We feel comfortable now going forward, and we're talking to other investors."