Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad: What split up indie film’s odd couple?

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If you’ve ever met the two men who were supposed to put Apparition Films on the map -- meaning indie film wizard Bob Berney and River Road’s deep-pocketed Bill Pohlad -- you’d know right away who sucks all the air out of the room.

Pohlad is a nice, genial guy, but very much the earnest, low-key Midwesterner who’s probably spent most of his life trying to steer people past the fact that he comes from an incredibly wealthy family. (His late father, the financier Carl Pohlad, who died last year at age 93, was the longtime owner of the Minnesota Twins, which remains in the family, run by another one of Carl’s sons.)


Bob Berney is a live-wire guy, sort of the classy modern-day version of Sammy Glick, if Glick had been born in Oklahoma instead of Brooklyn. Famous in indie film circles for launching a wide array of unlikely hits, including ‘Memento,’ ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and ‘Passion of the Christ,’ Berney has been so lionized by so many media types -- myself included -- that he now has a legion of detractors who say that he hogged too much of the credit for his successes. If he has hogged, he’s rarely been caught in the act, perhaps because his wife is a top-flight publicist, so if there’s sleight of hand its hard to see which hand is doing the dealing.

At any rate, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, with the scoop going to Deadline’s Mike Fleming, the two men behind Apparition have split, with Berney bailing on the company right on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival and after the company had only released a smattering of films, none of them successes.

Everyone is asking: What happened? Did Berney quit on the eve of Cannes because he knew it was the time when he’d get the most PR play for his departure? Or did he quit because after the debacle of ‘The Runaways’ -- a film that got a million miles of press coverage but only made $3.4 million at the box office -- he realized that Apparition was under-capitalized and that Pohlad wasn’t going to be tossing any more of his own money into the ring?

Most people agree that Apparition did not put up anywhere near the kind of marketing dough needed to launch ‘The Runaways,’ which never made it into more than 244 theaters at a time. It’s possible that Berney saw the writing on the wall and flew the coop. The company’s effort to break out Jane Campion’s period drama ‘Bright Star’ last fall was also a bust, especially considering that it spent $4.5 million to acquire the film just before Cannes last year.

I’d say that this is yet another example of how the old model for indie film releasing is broken, so broken that even a magician like Berney can’t figure out a way to fix it. Pohlad has bankrolled some admirable films in recent years, but since ‘Brokeback Mountain’ back in 2005, he hasn’t shown much in the way of commercial taste. So he needs Berney more than Berney needs him. Perhaps that’s why Berney -- who’s been a free agent almost as often as Milton Bradley in recent years, hopping from Newmarket to IFC to Picturehouse to Apparition -- is looking for a new film team that needs a star talent.

Berney is an all-star closer, but before he joins a new team he’d better figure out how to rejuvenate the old indie film formula, which looks more anemic than ever.