SAY YOU’RE HEIR to one of the largest fortunes in North America, an empire built on banking, soft drinks, and a major-league baseball team, but what you really want is to get into filmmaking. What do you do?
The quickest route might go something like this: you get your billionaire father to buy a film company in Hollywood. You fly out West on the private jet. You hobnob with Gwyneth and Brad, and then you produce a series of shoot-’em-up comedy crime capers with plenty of car chases and gratuitous sex until you’re the toast of Tinseltown. Or, you do it on your own.
William “Bill” Pohlad, son of Carl and president of River Road Entertainment, chose the latter.
Granted, he wasn’t living in a cold-water flat while he made his way. But Pohlad’s rise to the top—working on films such as Brokeback Mountain with director Ang Lee, and the soon-to-be-released movie based on A Prairie Home Companion—took roughly 15 years.
Pohlad was born in 1955, grew up in Edina, and attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Despite earning his degree in economics and accounting, he knew from the beginning he wanted to write. Once out of college, he signed on as a copywriter for an advertising agency. Nights, he worked on a screenplay about a Formula One racecar driver.
The script never went anywhere, and jingle-writing quickly got old. So Pohlad spent a few unremarkable years in the marketing department of his father’s massive conglomerate. But in 1987, he took what he calls “a total left turn”: founding a production company, River Road, with two friends (now departed from the company) and directing a feature film called Old Explorers, starring José Ferrer.
“It was all very exciting at the time,” says Pohlad. “The film was released and there was some attention. It was on Showtime quite a bit and came out on home video as well. But I never considered it a success by any means, and I don’t look back on it terribly fondly.”
River Road’s aim was to make independent feature films from a Midwest base. But that proved difficult. For a dozen years, the company did documentaries (including some on notable Minnesotans, such as Prince and Kirby Puckett), commercial work, and industrial videos. It produced in-flight entertainment for Northwest Airlines and music-based television programming for Sam Goody.
In 2000, Pohlad had a second epiphany—13 years after the first.
“I realized I wasn’t approaching this thing in a mature way,” he says. “I had to treat it more like a serious business.”
Over time, he changed his approach, building relationships in Hollywood and eventually partnering with Focus Features. The company’s co-president passed along the script for Brokeback Mountain—based on an Annie Proulx story about two cowboys who fall in love—and Pohlad found it stunning.
“There were a lot of gay-themed projects in Hollywood at the time.” He speaks slowly, thoughtfully, as if he’s realizing just now why this project was the right one. “But this was different: it was a true love story that just happened to involve two guys.”
Suddenly River Road was operating nationwide. But back home, the company continued doing local work. It was during a taping of the live performance of A Prairie Home Companion’s 30th anniversary show that Pohlad first heard about an upcoming movie, written by Garrison Keillor and directed by Robert Altman.
True to character, however, Pohlad moved slowly.
“It was kind of obvious we’d want to be involved,” he says. “Still, we did our homework; nothing is a slam dunk in this business. We had to make sure there were markets for the film.”
He laughs. “Garrison is a genius. The cast is magic. It’s just an amazing film, unlike any other,” he says. “The world is going to love it.”