December 16, 2009
The Next Moguls?
Bickering brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky bring a literary sensibility — and cash — to Hollywood.
In Hollywood, a good entrance is paramount.
Two weeks before the theatrical release last month of their first feature film, “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” producers Alan and Gabe Polsky threw themselves a coming-out ball.
As newcomers in Hollywood, the Polsky brothers sought a venue that would send all the right messages to all the right people: Bungalow One at the storied Chateau Marmont, the legendary hotel steeped in Hollywood history and glamour, where they could earn cachet simply by being seen there.
Not that they needed attention for their parties. Alan, 33, and Gabe, 30, the only sons of Chicago energy magnate Michael Polsky, were already generating buzz in Hollywood for snapping up a snazzy list of properties that looks more like the work of old pros.
Since they founded Polsky Films three years ago, the brothers have purchased life rights to an Albert Einstein biopic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (“something on the scale of ‘A Beautiful Mind’ but it has to be different,” Alan said), and made a similar deal for a film about Sigmund Freud. They’ve also acquired a respectable list of literary properties — including John Williams’ revisionist Western “Butcher’s Crossing,” with Sam Mendes attached to direct; Daniel Keyes’ novel “Flowers for Algernon,” which they’ll co-produce with Will Smith’s company Overbrook, and Willy Vlautin’s “The Motel Life,” starring James Franco, who may also direct. There’s also a rumored documentary on uber-producer Jerry Weintraub, that one inspired by a March 2008 Vanity Fair article, and another on “one of the biggest comedy actors in the world” — though that’s all they’ll say on that.
With all this on their plate, the industry trade Variety had the foresight — and faith — to name the Polskys “ones to watch” in the producing category earlier this fall, firmly placing them in the spotlight before the entire entertainment industry.
“Hollywood has this long list of people coming in with money and then leaving with their tail between their legs,” Variety film reporter Tatiana Siegel said. “What’s different about the Polskys is that they seem to have really fine literary taste and also a commercial sensibility. If you’ve optioned a book that Will Smith wants to work on, you’re in good shape. They have really good literary instincts and that brings in A-list talent.”
Hundreds of Hollywood’s newest arrivals, along with some established agents, screenwriters and executives, came to the party to celebrate the Polskys’ box office initiation. It was a lavish affair, with two open bars, a popular DJ and catering from Joan’s on Third. Friends flew in from New York, Iowa and Chicago, including Alan’s cohort from business school as well as from his stint in finance.
Alan stood at the center of the party dressed in an expensive suit, his shirt loose and unbuttoned at the neck, and sporting a messy mop of hair (some might say ‘Jewfro’) that matches his exuberant personality. He was a little bit drunk that night, a social force swirling around the room, while Gabe, the more reserved of the two — and the more clean-cut — hobnobbed with a pair of screenwriters by the door. Because they each seem to operate in their own orbit, though with markedly different styles, their partnership draws inevitable comparisons to a legendary sibling duo.
“They’re like the Weinsteins,” Polsky assistant Liam Satre-Meloy said over the din of the party crowd. “They fight — they don’t care who’s in the room — they’ll just start punching each other. It’s mind boggling that they could work together.”
While the Polskys might agree with the latter part of that description, they say they don’t see themselves heading down the same path as the Weinsteins, who ultimately loosened their creative grip to focus on financing. At least for now, these brothers’ clear goal is to be a creative force; a team that dreams up ideas and matches those up with talent.
Their mother, Maya, who had accompanied her sons to the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere in September and made her Chateau debut in a fiery red princess dress, is cautious about their foray into Hollywood. “I hope they have their heads on straight,” she said in a thick Ukrainian accent. “This town can be a little bit crazy.”
And, yet, the Polskys seem completely at ease here. Their drive to ascend to young Hollywood’s highest social perch from the start is an indicator of their grand ambitions in moviemaking. So what if they’re relative amateurs: the Polskys are aiming high with a sophisticated production slate, and as heirs to a massive fortune, they have the capital to compete in the market.
Critically, they’re off to a roaring start, though everyone knows that Hollywood can be a fickle friend. “The Bad Lieutenant,” about a druggie cop chasing down the murderers of five illegal immigrants from Senegal, is directed by Werner Herzog and stars Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and Val Kilmer. It opened to admirable reviews, described by New York Times critic A.O. Scott as “it’s own special fever swamp of a movie ... a pulpy glorious mess.” Yet it opened only in limited release — a mere 27 theaters, according to Box Office Mojo (at its widest release, it played in 96 theaters) — and, as of Dec. 15, its total worldwide gross had brought in only $1.8 million.
That kind of return has sunk many a new career, but the Polskys don’t appear too concerned. Besides having their own money, they have another of Hollywood’s most coveted assets: youth.
“They are young men who have a vision, and a certain boldness to pursue a dream, and that makes them different,” director Werner Herzog said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There are people who have money but no vision. I think they have the right spirit, the right courage; they have a vision. Let them experience the world out there in Hollywood — it might be a treacherous terrain. It might be a minefield.”
A week after the film’s release, the Polskys shared a rare moment of agreement while reflecting on the film’s reception: “I have mixed feelings to be honest with you,” Alan said. “We didn’t really end up in as many theaters as I think the film deserves, but as a producer I have a limited amount of power.” On the other hand, he added, “I’m very pleased with the critical response; I really like the one liners that come out of articles — words like ‘hypnotic’ — that’s totally what the movie is.”
“It seems like people who actually go and see the movie really respond to it,” Gabe said. “It was great to see Roger Ebert from Chicago give it four stars,” he added, with a hint of pride for their hometown.
That the Polskys spin their debut as a success suggests that making money is not the only driving force on their agenda. Which is a part of what makes them so incredibly refreshing, let alone something of an anomaly in Hollywood. At a time when studios are favoring megabrand franchises like comic book adaptations and best-sellers, and independent film outfits are evaporating from the playing field, the Polskys are seeking to reinvigorate a dying breed of independent film.
Gabe was the first to move to Los Angeles, after graduating from Yale with a major in political science and relinquishing his dream to play professional hockey. He worked in Endeavor’s literary department and then set off on his own. Alan got his degree in finance from the University of Iowa before going to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business (formerly Chicago GSB) and heading into finance. He worked for Bear Stearns and Arthur Andersen, both of which have since gone under, and then followed his brother to Hollywood and crashed on his couch.
Although their idea of themselves as hands-on creative producers is rather high-minded — “We want to make amazing movies and documentaries that are very powerful and original and interesting and commercial,” Gabe said — they deserve credit for their willingness to experiment at a time when others are cutting back. Right now, they’re toying with the idea of developing a “Bad Lieutenant” franchise that pairs known actors and directors in unusual combinations:
“Like Seth Rogen and, who, Gabe, as director?” Alan quipped.
“It could be Judd Apatow or the Coen brothers,” Gabe replied.
Alan: “Adam Sandler could play a good bad lieutenant.”
Gabe: “Yeah, Sandler…. Adam Sandler is such a huge movie star, so if you team him up with the right director,” Gabe said, thinking out loud, and then explained, “With this film, we were able to get financing off the combination of Herzog and Cage.”
Listening to the brothers dream together makes clear why, despite the sibling frictions, their collaborations work. There’s a level of comfort, a casualness with one another that comes from trust — and having spent lots and lots of time together. Of course, they prefer to focus on their differences.
“I don’t think we ever imagined that we would work together, that’s for sure,” Gabe told me the first time we met in their art-filled office on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny Drive. “We had a pretty good relationship growing up; we would beat each other up….”
“It was competitive,” Alan chimed in. “We played all the same sports, so you know ... we have extremely different personalities. You can’t even say ‘Alan is this’ and ‘Gabe is this,’ because if you asked me that, and you asked him that, you’d get different answers.”
What they will tell you without compunction is that both were rebellious and troublemakers as kids. Born to Ukrainian immigrants, the Polskys spent much of their childhood feeling like outsiders. Their parents, Michael and Maya, married in Kiev in 1975 and arrived in the United States a year later. Alan was born in Detroit, and Gabe in St. Cloud, Minn., before the family settled in Chicago, where their father went into the energy business and Maya opened an art gallery.
When it comes to discussing their family, they don’t agree on anything. When Gabe tried to explain his way out of the suggestion that his father’s energy business was harmful to the environment, Alan interrupted. “No Gabe, you’re the worst pitcher.”
“What do you mean?” Gabe asked.
“That’s just wrong. It’s wrong: the whole pitch about Dad.”
Alan took over: “My dad — our Dad — was one of the first people to build natural gas energy facilities which were the cleanest energy facilities in the world at the time.”
“What do you mean?” Gabe interjected. “He wasn’t the first guy….”
“He was,” Alan said nonchalantly. “When there was deregulation in the energy markets, they weren’t building coal plants, they were building natural gas plants.”
Michael Polsky sold his first company, SkyGen Energy, for a reported $450 million in 2000 and later launched Invenergy Wind, a wind energy company where he is CEO. When the couple split back in 2007, headlines touted Maya’s $184 million divorce settlement.
And yet, the Polsky brothers insist they had “a regular Midwestern upbringing” on Chicago’s North Shore, home to many of Illinois’ wealthiest families. “We were not spoiled kids,” Alan said when asked about growing up privileged. Even now, they don’t like to discuss the benefits of wealth, even as it pertains to their business.
“We have some discretionary money,” Alan admitted. “But to be perfectly honest with you, we’re not writing very big checks; we’re not financing films. I would never tell you how much we paid for the Einstein rights, but we’re relatively prudent. We don’t have an endless well of money — we have to make our bets like everybody else.”
Some industry insiders suspect they’ve so far spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying material, but such figures are difficult to gauge without knowing market specifics for what they bought.
It does seem that in order to be taken seriously by the industry, the boys are desperate to shed the stigma of rich kids — a label they disliked in their own community.
“We were definitely kind of ostracized from the Jewish community growing up,” Alan said. “We’re not religious guys at all; our family is Russian, and there was no religion in Russia.”
Still, the brothers made their right of passage as Jewish men and both became bar mitzvah at the synagogue Am Shalom in Glencoe. Just don’t expect them to marry from the tribe.
“Jewish girls were difficult growing up,” Gabe said.
“They were very spoiled where we grew up,” Alan clarified, “very cliquey.”
“It didn’t help that we were always causing trouble,” Gabe admitted.
The Polskys say, however, that they feel unexpectedly at home among Hollywood’s Jews.
“There’s definitely something warm and comfortable about the [Hollywood] Jewish community,” Gabe said.
“It feels nice in Hollywood, because, honestly, there’s so much of it you feel you’re a part of a community,” Alan said.
“There’s something to it here — a lot more than I felt in Chicago. It feels much better to be Jewish here.”
While to outsiders, a Jewish success story in Hollywood might sometimes seem like a forgone conclusion, the Polskys still have to prove more than just taste if they plan to have longevity in the movie business. And to their credit, they seem to being enjoying the process even more than focusing on the outcome.
“I think it was a famous producer that said, ‘you’re only as good as your next movie’ and I think it’s really true,” Alan said.
“We’re just trying to play in our corner of the sandbox,” Gabe said, picking up on his brother’s thought. “We’re not by any means getting overly confident with our abilities to compete in this environment. This is just our first project; we hope to be doing this for a long time.”