THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when savvy filmmakers fan out across Venice, Deauville, Toronto and Telluride to show their fall lines. Some are looking for distribution deals, some simply want good reviews and favorable buzz. Most urgently, they want their projects to rise above the dizzying clutter.
A unique cast of characters always turns up at these events — the “hot” and the has-beens.
Very much in evidence this year, however, will be Mr. Mainstream himself, Sydney Pollack. I call him Mr. Mainstream because Pollack, at age 65, is the ultimate insider. He seems to sit on every board and turn up on every “A” list, and he’s been a confidante of everyone from Kubrick to Spielberg to Billy Wilder. In his 34-year career he’s picked up virtually every award and still sits atop every studio wish list.
So why is Sydney Pollack faithfully piloting his plane from city-to-city across Europe this month? For one thing, he’s hyping the latest movie he directed, a $ 74 million Harrison Ford romance called “Random Hearts.” Mindful of that dreaded “older demo,” Pollack is promoting his movie to a hopefully wider audience.
Equally important, he’s out there hustling his own fall line — a cluster of modestly budgeted independent movies that he’s produced during 1999.
YES, MR. MAINSTREAM has quietly, almost surreptitiously, emerged as Hollywood’s busiest producer of independent pictures. After more than three decades in the director’s hot seat, Pollack has lost patience with the major studios’ fixation on overpriced, overhyped superstar vehicles and has found solace in a more satisfying genre.
The five movies Pollack’s company, Mirage, produced last year boast some outstanding younger filmmakers, from Anthony Minghella to Paddy Breathnach, and some attractive casts (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman), but their subject matter is wildly eclectic and their budgets total well under half of Hollywood’s average.
Their attraction to Mr. Mainstream? “They’re fun to make,” he replies with his craggy smile. Having directed a range of hits from “Tootsie” to “Out of Africa,” Pollack believes that “there’s simply too much riding on the big, expensive Hollywood movies. Everyone feels defeated by the pressure.”
Pollack has no intention of surrendering his high-profile directing career, but to sustain his enthusiasm and indulge his appetite for offbeat material, he’s accelerated the activities of his little company to the point where he will probably make as many as 10 films by the end of 2000.
“I love what I’m doing,” he confesses. “I love the idea of coming up with some surprises.”
Longtime colleagues of Mr. Mainstream are bemused at his burst of productivity, given his reputation for equivocation. It’s an open secret among studio executives that the easiest way to stall a project is to offer Pollack the directing job. By the time he’s finished ulcerating over its pros and cons, chances are the movie will have finished principal photography in other hands.
Pollack sheepishly acknowledges this frailty. “When you say ‘yes,’ it means you’ll be living with a project for two years. Besides, I’ve never felt myself to be a natural director. It doesn’t come easy to me.”
‘NATURAL’ OR NOT, POLLACK has elicited some extraordinary performances from his actors, whether Streisand in “The Way We Were” or the volatile Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” or Redford in the ill-fated “Havana.”
Pollack is demonstrating that his decision-making capabilities seem sharper in the indie arena. His movies boast a variety of partners including Paramount, Miramax, New Regency, Sony and Intermedia, the British-based entity headed by Guy East and Nigel Sinclair.
Mirage has an overall deal at Sony, but an ongoing financial relationship with Intermedia. And while Pollack is no longer represented by CAA because of his refusal to terminate his relationship with Michael Ovitz, it is CAA’s John Ptak who engineers his deals.
“Warren Buffett says he’s drawn to companies because he respects the people involved,” says Pollack. “I feel the same way about movies. I’m in a ‘people’ business, not a ‘high concept’ business.”
And clearly people are drawn to Pollack. Candid and unpretentious, Pollack is a supportive producer, not a castrating one, and he knows how to get things done. He is, after all, Mr. Mainstream.