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February 15, 2008

Independent Woman

Polly Cohen '95 Makes Hollywood Power List

By James Tella

The Hollywood Reporter recently recognized Cohen among the ranks of the Power 100 of women entertainment executives.
When Polly Cohen ’95 graduated from the Stark Producing Program, she readily admits the breadth of positions available in Hollywood were virtually unknown to her. Today, as her career with Warner Bros. has led her to the presidency of Warner Independent Pictures, The Hollywood Reporter has also recently recognized Cohen and named her among the ranks of the Power 100 of women entertainment executives.

“I didn’t know this whole side of the industry existed,” said Cohen, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at San Diego in Chinese Studies. Living and working in Southeast Asia, Cohen’s time on the set of the 1993 Jackie Chan feature Supercop was the catalyst to her foray into the entertainment industry.

“Choosing one path or the other was not a conscious decision,” she added. “I just knew I wanted to work as an executive, and remembered how much fun I had on Supercop. Strategically, I wasn’t ready to leave my love for Chinese behind and felt my career would be in distribution.”

While still a graduate student, Cohen worked for Warner Bros. Pictures as a production management trainee joining Jersey Films soon after obtaining her M.F.A. In 1997, she joined Warner Bros. Studios as a creative executive and was named a production executive in 1998. Cohen was quickly promoted to vice president of production in 1999 and moved up to senior vice president in 2003 and executive vice president in 2006. She was tapped to be at the helm of Warner Independent Pictures (WIP) in May 2006.

No stranger to blockbuster pictures, Cohen worked on the first four Harry Potter movies, as well as Starsky and Hutch, Three Kings, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Analyze This. She was also a part of the production teams for other hits including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Superman Returns, Blood Diamond, and the recent box office champ I Am Legend.

"Making big movies is like going on an exchange program in France and discovering you can’t eat Big Macs every day,” Cohen mused, saying that her personal taste has morphed into seeing smaller movies, which makes her post at WIP the perfect fit. “I love both large and small films, but the wider the audience, the less specific the story can be so that it appeals to a mass crowd.”

Fall 2007 marked the time that pictures solely under Cohen's domain were released, including In The Valley of Elah, which has garnered Tommy Lee Jones a nomination for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards.
Admitting that it’s difficult to stand out among the plethora of movies vying for screen time on the nation’s theaters, Cohen is now focused on acquisitions and “making movies that truly feel independent and have a strong point of view.” She doesn’t, she says, want them to feel as if they “could just as easily be on the other side of the street.”

Prior to Polly’s arrival, WIP’s critical and commercial successes have included Good Night, and Good Luck and the Academy Award winning documentary March of the Penguins. Since Cohen’s arrival in June 2006, some of the projects released include A Scanner Darkly, Science of Sheep and A Painted Veil.  But it wasn’t until this fall that pictures solely under her domain were released, including In The Valley of Elah and Darfur Now.   (WIP’s upcoming releases include films by David Gorden Green, Michael Haneke, Alan Ball, Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh.)

Following the phenomenal success of the WIP release March of the Penguins, Cohen notes that it’s hard to remember that the Warner’s arm is only four years old. She jokes that “the movie you don’t make is always the one you break even on,” and says that WIP has no clear mandate on the number of films they have to produce each year.

“When you have the kind of magic at the box office like they did for Penguins, it’s natural
Cohen was also a part of the production teams for other hits including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
for people to want to ask ‘where’s the next hit?,’” she offered. “But you never know where that is going to come from in this business. We have to start from scratch and build ourselves up. That’s the good news on being on the young side. The quality of our material has to supercede everything else, and we have to know our target audiences.”

Finding those moviegoers in age of intense competition from video games to the Internet, Cohen has her work cut out for her.

“Our long-term business plan is to work with filmmakers we really respect and foster a partnership with them as well as develop new relationships.”

And as WIP cultivates those relationships, what does Cohen see as an addition to her already long list of accomplishments?

“My hope is to just create a self-sustaining company and one that has enough momentum and stability that this niche will be created and exist long after I’m gone. I don’t mean like when I’m dead, just one that exists beyond my tenure,” she joked before adding one more piece of wisdom. “You have to be around long enough to not be looked at as a fad.”