New Road trip for ‘Che’ team

Prod'n companies merge, eye features with Focus

After developing “Che” into a feature that will reteam “Traffic” star Benicio Del Toro and director Steven Soderbergh, producers Laura Bickford and Bill Pohlad have sealed a deal to become producing partners on films to be co-financed by Pohlad’s River Road.

Bickford, who produced “Traffic,” will fold her Laura Bickford Prods. shingle into Pohlad’s venture, which is becoming an aggressive player at Universal-based Focus Features, with which it has a first-look deal.

Pairing comes just as River Road completes a deal to take a major equity stake in “Brokeback Mountain,” a drama Ang Lee is about to direct. Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and Randy Quaid star.

Focus Features is also negotiating in earnest to become the domestic distributor on the River Road-financed “Che.”

River Road and Focus are also in talks to partner on “Godlike Things,” a Christopher Wheeler-scripted drama to be directed by Scott Hicks (“Shine”) and produced by Pohlad, Bickford and Jim McElroy (“The Year of Living Dangerously”).

“Godlike,” which will shoot in late fall, concerns a young man who loses his mother and blocks out the world, using his computer skills to create a virtual-reality re-creation of his mother as a way to keep her in his life.

Pohlad said he and Bickford decided to team as they rode the twists and turns of “Che,” a film that had a firm summer 2004 start date scrapped when director Terrence Malick took another picture. It is now set for an August 2005 start with Soderbergh at the helm.

“The goal of the company is to have the luxury to finance projects, but we are looking to become much more than that,” Pohlad said.

Bickford will be bringing with her Sonja Grunden, who will become senior VP. Bickford will continue to shepherd her own projects, which include “Chaos,” a remake she’s producing with Tribeca as a star vehicle for Robert De Niro and Del Toro, with Andrew Buvell writing and Jonathan Glazer directing.

She welcomed the chance to join a company with ready access to production coin. “If you make films outside the studio system, the best thing is to have an equity partner,” she said. “This arrangement gives us the best of both worlds. River Road doesn’t want to just be a bank, so we both get what we want — the ability to both produce and finance.”

River Road invests in “Brokeback Mountain” just weeks before the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” helmer starts production. Pic is based on a short story by Annie L. Proulx, with a script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana that has been rewritten by Focus Features co-head and the film’s producer, James Schamus.

“Our deal with Focus was always designed to work both ways,” Pohlad said. “They are bringing projects to us, and we are bringing them projects that we will drive creatively.”

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