Duo announce new distribution company

Bill Pohlad and Bob Berney have unveiled details for their long-planned distribution company, to be named Apparition.

In addition to the Jane Campion-directed “Bright Star,” which the gestating company acquired just before Cannes, Apparition confirmed it will release the Terrence Malick-directed Sean Penn-Brad Pitt starrer “Tree of Life,” going out this year.

It also has an ancillary rights output deal with Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group.

Berney and Pohlad said their goal is to acquire and release as many as eight pictures per year. Apparition will be based in New York, with offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. Berney starts with a staff of about 25, including Dan Lange, Bill Thompson and John Lange in distribution; Sara Rose in acquisitions; plus Jeanne R. Berney, Kirk Iwanowski and Molly Albright in marketing.

Announcement ends a long period in which the Berney-Pohlad venture hovered like an apparition over festivals and a prestige-picture business eager for an energetic distribution company to emerge.

Pohlad, whose River Road has produced and financed such films as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Into the Wild,” targeted Berney as the catalyst for a move into distribution when he became available after Warner Bros. shuttered Picturehouse.

Though the Apparition team was mum on funding, outside sources said Pohlad is initially investing some $30 million into the venture as principal financier. That covers startup costs, as well as the P&A on “Bright Star,” which opens Sept. 18, and “Tree of Life,” which hasn’t been dated but will be released around the year-end holiday season. The 2009 bow is interesting since Malick is famous for long post-production periods.

The initial expectation was that Pohlad would be one of as many as three principals who would invest and put their films through the new venture that would set its DVD and other ancillary rights with Sony (Daily Variety, April 24).

Pohlad acknowledges that at present he is the principal investor but would not comment on the amount or the gyrations Apparition went through when it was out raising coin in a difficult finance marketplace.

He said he wanted to get into distribution as a way to have more control over the end of the game. And it became all about Berney, who has a strong distribution track record and such indie blockbusters as “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to his credit.

“Over the years, we’ve been exploring the distribution space and had a lot of discussions about doing various things with various people,” Pohlad said. “It never felt right to me. I felt that if I did something, I’d want it to be a company that can stand on its own and not just exist as a place for a production company to put its movies. When Bob became available, that’s what made it happen. Apparition’s relationship with River Road will be good and close, but it’s not like one is a slave to the other. Clearly, we think there is a great opportunity right now and in the long term for a distribution company.”

Berney said Apparition enters the film-buying game at a time of great opportunity.

“Even though you look at some of the companies that left the landscape, particularly with studios that have reduced in size, I feel that the audiences for these films are still there and growing,” Berney said. “Also, the exhibitors really need films. They have been supportive, and producers and filmmakers around the world are really looking to the U.S. market as a real mystery now.

“We are being somewhat contrarian, but sometimes, when markets have shrunk, it’s a good time to get in, especially if you have the pieces in place and the ability to pick really good films. Quality films always rise to the top.”

Berney said he expects to move quickly to bring Apparition to its aimed-for annual output of seven to eight pictures. He feels that’s a good number to give the company clout when it comes time to collect revenues from exhibitors.

“That is a good level for the distributor-exhibitor relationship, to know there is a flow of product,” he said. “But in my track record in distribution, the exhibitors we’ve worked with have treated our relationship as a real partnership.”

Pohlad acknowledges that other pieces might be added to the financial mix at Apparition. Aside from “Tree of Life,” Pohlad’s River Road has several other films coming, including “Fair Game,” the Doug Liman-directed film based on the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, with Penn and Naomi Watts starring. There’s also “The Runaways,” the saga of the teen rock band that stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.

Pohlad said he is unsure if either of those films will see distribution through Apparition.

“We see this as an opportunity, where at other times there were companies that represented great specialty films and became homes for artists who could enjoy a straightforward way of doing business,” Pohlad said. “Bob and I feel that’s the space we are looking at.”

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