H’wood heat behind indie Mirage

Oscar winners Pollock, Minghella talent-friendly

NAMES: Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella

DESCRIPTION: Producers, writers, directors

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: These Hollywood vets know more than a thing or two about indie film production.

Who would have thought a grizzled Hollywood player like Sydney Pollack could set an example for the next wave of indie producers?

Mirage Enterprises, the shingle he runs with Anthony Minghella, may be based in Beverly Hills, but it structures its deals in a time-honored indie tradition: offsetting risk by deferring production fees and securing salary deferments from talent; and combining offshore financing with studio distribution. Mirage exited its last studio deal, at Sony, last year. Now, Intermedia puts up production and development funds and overhead.

True to the spirit of his early career as an acting teacher, Pollack seeks to surround talent with a supportive — and unusually collaborative — working environment.

“I have to dissuade people from the idea that I’m anything but a support system,” says Pollack.

Minghella echoes that sentiment: “I want to feel that any director or writer at Mirage is treated the way I as a writer or director would want to be treated,” he says.

Yet the company’s financial objectives are modest.

“It was never set up to become a public company and sell stock and have a board of directors,” says Pollack. “It’s a little group of people who set out to minimize risk.”

Studio cushion

That may sound altruistic coming from the only Hollywood shingle run by two producers with their own best-director Oscars. But it belies a combination of creative and business skills that give Pollack and Minghella considerable wiggle room in their dealings with Hollywood partners.

“It makes an executive’s job really easy,” says Miramax co-prexy of production Meryl Poster. Pollack and Minghella, she says, “are talent-friendly. They know the nuts and bolts of producing. There’s really nothing they don’t know.”

Mirage has had its share of disappointments: Last year’s “Up at the Villa,” a USA Films release, grossed $2.9 million Stateside; “Blow Dry,” out this year from Miramax, had a domestic B.O. of $600,000.

But by and large, the formula appears to be working. Minghella became Pollack’s partner last year after Minghella directed both “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for Mirage.

Nowadays, the director-producers are busier than ever. In the wake of hits like 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility” and 1998’s “Sliding Doors,” each of which grossed close to $100 million worldwide, the company has amassed a slate of eclectic, often risk-taking projects, many of them European and literary in tone.

‘Mountain’ man

Mirage just opened a London office to serve as headquarters for Minghella, who’s about to start casting “Cold Mountain,” from the bestselling Charles Frazier novel. Pic, which Minghella scripted, will be a co-production of Mirage, Bonafide, Miramax and MGM.

Intermedia has just greenlit “The Assumption,” a Walter Salles love story about 15th century Florentine painter Fra Lippi with Juliette Binoche and Benicio Del Toro, co-produced by Minghella’s wife, Carolyn Choa.

Also forthcoming are “Heaven,” Tom Tykwer’s first English-language pic, based on Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski’s last script, and “The Quiet American,” a Graham Greene adaptation with Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier — both to be distributed Stateside by Miramax.

For Pollack, whose long career as a director has, as he puts it, hit “a rut of making big, expensive movies with big movie stars,” it’s also an opportunity to make smaller pictures that don’t fit the obvious studio mold.

“These are the kind of films I wouldn’t get offered,” says Pollack.

In the wake of a summer of tentpole pyrotechnics, in which studios all but abandoned the quest for serious movies and big ideas, Pollack is happy to take up the slack.

“Are you in the fast-food business or not?” he asks. “Mind you, I love McDonald’s hamburgers. I don’t always want a bottle of Chateau Lafite. But I want it most nights.”

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