A year since she took over as president of Warner Independent Pictures, Polly Cohen has reshaped Warner’s specialty label from a buyer of low-budget art films to a producer of smart-house pictures aimed at discerning adults. Unlike her predecessor Mark Gill, Cohen can not only tap the full backing of her big-studio parent, with its star relationships (George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio), but also take the risks that lean, low-budget filmmaking permits.
As a veteran Warner production executive with experience developing and supervising such big-budget fare as “Superman Returns” and “Blood Diamond,” Cohen believes in building projects from the ground up and retaining control of financing and casting, rather than cobbling together foreign partners and globally friendly stars who may not be right for each individual film.
With the unabashed support of Warner production prexy Jeff Robinov, Cohen has access to development funds that WIP founder Gill wouldn’t dare imagine.
“Some movies have a specific audience that is both arthouse and potentially broader as well,” Cohen said. “When I came here, a lot of these movies were tweeners or scaled-down Warner Bros. movies. They weren’t the most organic version of what they could be. We’ll take risks. When we can’t do that, what’s the point of doing it?”
In that vein, Cohen has signed a series of first-look deals with high-toned indie producers. Bona Fide Prods.’ Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger were already developing “The Abstinence Teacher,” a follow-up to Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which Tom Perotta is adapting from his upcoming novel. (He’ll hand in a script shortly.)
“You can make splashy deals,” Cohen said, “but the deals that make the most sense are organic. They come out of a working relationship over time, knowing their taste.”
She also pacted with Likely Story’s Anthony Bregman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), who is shepherding multiple upcoming projects around town.
“We’re developing material looking out far into the future,” Cohen said. “It’s another like-minded relationship that helps to fulfill a New York presence. They are not the flashiest deals, but they are blue chips to build the company that will last a long time.”
Of course WIP still makes the occasional opportunistic acquisition. Coming into the Cannes fest, WIP is launching producer DiCaprio’s eco-activist documentary “The 11th Hour,” which the DiCaprio-friendly studio acquired last month. Other key acquisitions under Cohen’s watch include Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of his 1997 hostage thriller “Funny Games,” starring Naomi Watts, which Cohen snapped up during production after a meet-and-greet with Haneke, whose “Cache” she had admired. At Sundance 2007, WIP picked up Cherie Nowlan’s Australian dramedy “Introducing the Dwights,” starring Brenda Blethyn.
By patiently waiting until after the fest, WIP was able to acquire, at a discount, “Snow Angels,” a grim family drama starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, after it failed to garner much enthusiasm from other distribs. Finally, filmmaker David Gordon Green was happy to wait for 2008 release slot.
“It’s about David Gordon Green as a filmmaker,” she said. That relationship has yielded a likely deal for the indie filmmaker to adapt John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” with Smoke House’s Grant Heslov producing. “We want to be in the repeat business with a lot of filmmakers.”
Luckily, as Cohen climbed a steep learning curve, she had the luxury of 10 pictures coming through the pipeline that were initiated under Gill’s WIP tenure. Cohen and her marketing and distribution team, led by Steve Friedlander and Laura Kim, supported Gill’s projects as they came into the marketplace, although the Edward Norton starrer “The Painted Veil,” in particular, underperformed, topping out with a domestic gross of $8 million.
“We’re building up to a new wave,” Cohen said. “We have the opportunity to not throw things together, starting a new development page. We can devote more time to movies than other places. But we’re still leaner and meaner than some of these mammoth mini-majors. As we get material in, we’ll go forward.”
Cohen’s first production is “In the Valley of Elah,” writer-director Paul Haggis’ Iraq war drama starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon as parents in search of their missing son, set for release Sept. 27. James Ellroy’s “White Jazz” is being prepped by writer Matt Carnahan and brother Joe Carnahan.
As a sophomore at Cannes this year, Cohen sees last year as her chance to visit colleges, learning the lay of the land. This year she’s in charge and looks forward to meeting many of the European players that she still does not know. With a full slate, Cohen will be picky. But she is willing to acquire the right foreign-language film.
“People look at their computer screens and scrolls all day,” she said. “People text. The younger generation is more bilingual. The world is a smaller place.”
With the demand for product only getting greater as more distributors enter the specialty market, Cohen is convinced a production strategy will make it easier for her to avoid competitive festival feeding frenzies like Sundance 2007. “It does feel like it’s flying off the shelf faster,” she said.
As far as Cohen is concerned, slow and steady wins the race.