DECADE: Michael Barker & Tom Bernard -- Another Ten Years in the Classics World, Part 1
by Eugene Hernandez
[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]
There are few people who have been on the front lines of indie film — as
captains of their own distribution ship(s) — for as long as Michael Barker
and Tom Bernard, Co-Presidents (along with Marcie Bloom) of Sony Pictures Classics. The company is in
some ways the latest in a string of Classics divisions that began at UA and
continued at Orion. Eugene Hernandez speaks with the indie mainstays.
In large part, Barker & Bernard’s success within a studio framework inspired
the current generation of IndieWood distributors, preceding Disney‘s
purchase of Miramax, as well as the creation of Fox Searchlight, Universal‘s
purchase of October, and the formation of Paramount Classics.
Yet, while a company like Miramax has grown tremendously in size during the
90’s as the definition of independent film has evaporated and IndieWood has
embraced production, Sony Pictures Classics has remained a steady source of
indie acquisitions, auteur productions, and foreign films released in an
often modest, but, according to it chiefs, always profitably manner.
indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez visited Barker and Bernard in their adjoining
offices at Sony Classics’ New York headquarters, and a few days later Tom
Bernard called the indieWIRE office to offer Hernandez and Mark Rabinowitz
few more thoughts on the subject at hand.
“The ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ mentality has really put an end to that
independent small film that has something to say; there’s only a few venues
that it can play around the country and it’s got to wait a long time to get
indieWIRE: Bingham Ray, John Sloss, John Pierson, Marcus Hu and others in
our series have credited you guys with remaining true to your mission at
Sony Classics and certainly while at Orion before that. Bingham credits your
corporate parent with allowing you the freedom to be able to stay true to
that mission, but given all the changes that have happened in the
marketplace, what are the challenges you face in staying true to that
Tom Bernard: Here’s the deal. We created Orion Classics and
started UA Classics. This is the business we’ve wanted to be in,
distributing quality films around the world in a way that makes money for
every movie, and to do it in partnership with directors and producers, the
people who conceived the film so that they’ll share in the profits. So we’ve always
looked at the business as our own business. And one of the reasons that
we’ve always stayed within a major company is that the volatility of the
independent marketplace is such that if my company went out of business, the
filmmakers and vendors wouldn’t be able to get paid — which if you go
through the 80’s there’s about 200 companies that came and went, great
independent companies and specialized companies that went out of business,
some of the greatest.
And so being in the womb of a studio with the freedom to do what you want,
we’ve always felt is the best place. We never wanted to go out on our own
and have to be in a position where we’d have to compromise our money and the
survival of our company for the people who were our partners, the
filmmakers. So we’ve always developed a very good contract at the places
we’ve worked to protect the freedom and the ability to have an independent
spirit of the way we do business, in distributing the movies and creating
the ads and just everything that we do. So we did that at Orion, we had that
at UA, and we have it even at Sony.
You know, there was a first round of Classics divisions in the early 80’s.
UA Classics was the first one, and we had our mandate about distributing
specialized quality movies around the world, [that were] director oriented,
and we had some great success with movies like “Diva” and “The Last Metro.”
All the other studios looked around and said, “Jesus Christ we’ve got to
have one of these. They have one, every studio’s got to have one.” And they
had no idea why they had to have one or what they would do, but they had to
have one, and they formed Fox Classics, Universal Classics. Anyway, we
continued to survive, and we left and went to Orion Classics and all the
other Classics divisions went out of business because they weren’t a
financially sound idea.
We started Orion Classics with Arthur Krim under the same principles, and
again, to be cost effective in how we did business, we knew what our
marketing plans were, we knew what kinds of movies we wanted to buy, and it
was very successful for us and then Orion ran into financial trouble. And so
we looked around in the 90’s, because at the end Orion got killed by the
studios — it was the cost of doing business that just got too expensive, I
think, too expensive to make pictures, too expensive to market them. Things
were starting to change at that point. So we started Sony Classics. We
shopped around to all the various companies, and we found Peter Guber and
Mike Medavoy, John Dolgen were there, and they understood our vision and
what we wanted to do and gave us a contract that insured the freedom to be
able to do it. And they had Columbia Classics years ago, so they had been
familiar with what the business was — and knew that when it was Columbia
Classics it was run very wrong and they lost a lot of money.
And we showed them our business plan and how we went about our business and
they were thrilled. So we started out with “Howard’s End,” and “Indochine,”
our two big pictures the first year. And “Howard’s End” was unlike anything
anyone had ever seen in the 90’s; it was new. And the type of distribution
pattern that we had on “Howard’s End” was a shocking distribution pattern
for that time. We opened it in Manhattan in one theater in March, and David
Putnam had once said this about “The Killing Fields” when I was with him on
a panel; they said, “How did you know what you were going to do?” And he
said, “Well the picture would tell us.” And we’d had a plan where we thought
that “Howard’s End” was going to play and it was going to be a big Oscar
picture, and we didn’t want to do the studio mentality release, which is go
into 4-500 theaters for two months and it’s over. So we expanded the
distribution very slowly throughout the summer into September and we kept it
alive, and as the year-end awards came we expanded it again, and expanded it
again when the Oscars came and the Golden Globes, and it ended up playing
into the next May and ended up doing $26 million.
The reason that’s significant is that all the other studios took notice of
what it did and they said, jeez, if they did $26 million, we probably could
have done $50 million. We should have had it out on 1,000 screens and we
should have been pumping the money in. But that type of distribution pattern
doesn’t work. If you look at classics like “Amadeus,” it’s the same pattern,
and you have to really think it through. Now “Howard’s End” is sort of a
classic distribution pattern for the studios, “We’ll do the “Howard’s End”
pattern.” But what happened was, Disney said, we’ve got to have one of
these. So they shopped around and said, we’ll just buy Miramax. We won’t
have to start it up, because Miramax had shopped their company around to
every studio and every studio looked at the bottom line and said, we don’t
need that. But Disney went ahead and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg saw the success of “Howard’s
End” and signed Merchant Ivory up to do “Jefferson in Paris.” And as you saw
the 80’s progress, Fox Searchlight came into being, Universal decided they
had to have one, so they somehow connected to Gramercy, and MGM is now
trying to turn UA into a classics division, Paramount is creating Paramount
Classics. Again it’s that copycat attitude.
But I think what’s different, and one of the things that has been the curse
of this new “sex, lies and videotape” generation is that they have become
mirror images of the studios. They are controlled by the studio distribution
system, they are controlled by the studio creative system. So you look at
Fox Searchlight and their head of distribution used to be a studio
distribution guy. And everybody has come into this pattern of, “We’ll
release it like a studio, we’ll go out with 300 prints, then we’re going to
go into television, then we’re going to work up to 500, and it’s like a
steam engine rolling down the road and they’re just not going to stop it and
then when that doesn’t work, they’re going to move on to the next picture.
And what’s hurt us, and one of the things that’s been the biggest challenges
for us over the 90’s is that the cost of doing business for us has been
raised by companies like Miramax and Fox Searchlight where they have decided
to spend money on the distribution of the pictures like studio money. And
it’s a sort of a hit mentality. We’re going to release 20 and if one hits,
it pays for the 20. Whereas our philosophy has always been every movie
should be bought and worked to try to succeed, and be a financial success.
And so it’s a focus and it’s a mandate.
And so when Miramax had “Cinema Paradiso” and you can put it in at any cost,
all of a sudden the theaters said, “Well, Miramax is charging less for film
rental terms, so if you want us to move it out to get your picture in,
you’ve got to pay less terms.” And filmmakers said, “Jeez, Fox Searchlight
has a major television campaign for this movie, we want a major television
campaign.” I remember sitting in John Sloss‘ office one day when he had one
of his clients, [Ed Burns, director of] “The Brothers McMullen,” on the
phone with him, and I remember John was talking to him on the conference
call with the studio and he said, “What do you mean we made no money? We
grossed $10 million!” And I said, “John, they spent $10 million to get the
$10 million.” So it’s going into it like a business and what’s your bottom
line going to be — the term is grossing up, or buying your box office.
Maybe it makes some up in the ancillaries, but the filmmaker is not going to
see a penny. So trying to figure out how to negotiate in the 90’s waters of
the studio mentality — you know, a guy like Marcus Hu at Strand Releasing,
he has the same mandate we do, and he has to struggle to stay there —
that’s been the most difficult. I think one of the things that I found most
shocking over the years was looking at the opening of Steve Buscemi‘s “Trees
Lounge” and seeing a full page ad in the New York Times, and thinking, I
think that money probably could have been spent more effectively.
iW: Are some of these types of things contractual now? “julien donkey boy”
had a full page color ad in the New York Times when it opened.
Bernard: Shocking stuff. It’s not in our contracts. You’d have to ask them
why they do it. But that’s been very difficult because a lot of the art
theaters and places that would keep your movies on the screen for a long
time have gone out of business. That’s another problem that’s gone on in
this realm, is as the studios have tried to corrupt the independent world
into making it fit into their peg, the theater chains have bought up all the
independent art theater owners out there, so you have just a handful left.
Lincoln Plaza with Dan Talbot who programs what he likes, and it works, and
his audience goes there because it’s him. You have Bob Laemmle in Los
Angeles, who again when you ask, “Why are you playing that movie Bob?”
“Because I like it.” But Landmark Theaters is now a circuit of 120 screens.
AMC has art theaters in Atlanta that are programmed, Reel Cinemas owns the
art theaters in Dallas, Loews has the art theaters in Washington DC and
Chicago. Hoyts has got art theaters in Hartford, but the fact is that these
are now owned by circuits, so it’s a circuit mentality where lowest gross
each week is thrown off the screen. So if you’ve got a specialized movie, or
a movie that needs to grow, or maybe it’s not going to hit that monster box
office but it’s going to stay consistent numbers throughout its run, they’re
throwing it off as soon as another big movie opens.
“The people you meet have changed a lot, it’s a whole process now. When is
the last time you met an independent filmmaker from the past that has an ICM
agent, a manager, and you talk to his people before you talk to him?”
So what it’s done in the 90’s, the “sex, lies, and videotape” mentality has
really put an end to that independent small film that has something to say;
there’s only a few venues that it can play around the country and it’s got
to wait a long time to get in. Places like the Film Forum or the Quad or
maybe Landmark’s NuArt or the Music Box in Chicago, there’s just a handful
of places and the guys only going to get a week’s run. Whereas in the past,
these pictures could have run for 4-5 weeks. [With] “American Movie,” we’ve
gone to war with a lot of theaters to hold it on the screen, and we have,
but it’s been very difficult, whereas in the past it would not have been a
problem. We’ll never sell out a relationship with a major studio chain to
get a picture placed in the right theater. And that we don’t have a
Dimension line, and we’re not taking “Waking Ned Devine” or “The Full Monty“
to a thousand screens, means that we’re not at the mercy of the major
circuits. So that if I had a “Scream 2,” and I went to AMC and said, “Jeez,
I need 2,000 screens to open today,” they’d say fine, but when you go to
Atlanta you can’t play the independent art theater; I want it in my theater.
And the same with all the other circuits.
So we kept our integrity by not having to do that, and over the years the
way that we’ve been able to get a large number of screens if we need them is
the heads of most of the major circuits are people we grew up with in the
80’s that were bookers or journeyman guys who have risen to the top of the
chains. So we can get on the phone with any of those guys and have access to
those theaters without having to make a sell-yourself-to-the-devil deal 5
times a year. When we need it, it’s there. So that’s been difficult, getting
into the theaters. But we’ve done it because of our consistency.
It’s a unique situation; we buy what we like. And if we don’t think we can
make it work, we don’t want it. When we buy a film, we look at it like,
“What theaters are going to have it and who’s the audience, can we make it
work, can we figure out how to market the movie?” When we solve those
problems, that’s when we go after a film. If we don’t have an answer, we
don’t want it.
iW: Are you any less likely now to take a very good movie like “American
Movie” that’s going to be smaller and maybe a fight to keep on screens in
Bernard: It depends on the film. You take a shot at it. A movie like
“Whatever,” it didn’t work financially as we wanted or would have liked but
we took a shot at it because we liked what it had to say and thought it
would work. That’s not a factor. If we think we can make it work, we’re
going to go for it. What I found in the last several years, and another
thing I’ve seen because of the “sex, lies and videotape” lottery win so to
speak, is that independent filmmakers have changed dramatically as a group.
There’s always individuals that are unique.
iW: In terms of their expectations or in terms of the types of movies being
Bernard: In terms of their motivation for making films, in terms of the
kinds of movies they’re making. And what I mean by that is that I find that
this is a very fashionable business to be in. It’s like getting a band and
let’s get in the record business, so it’s, “We’ll make an independent movie
and we’ll get some money from some relatives and we’ll go to film school and
maybe we can make a lot of money and hit it big.” And I think that’s a lot
of the motivation for people to get into the music business, they want to
hit it big. And I think in the 80’s people had something to say and they
wanted to make a movie about it and get people to see it so they could see
their message and express their ideas and what their feelings and ideas
were, for whatever their cause or whatever they wanted to say, and the rest
would happen. And I think there’s a much more calculated callous, cold
viewpoint of independent filmmakers today of, “What can we make that’s going
to make a lot of money, what kind of stars should we get so we can get that
million-dollar Sundance deal, and then we can go to Hollywood and make real
big Hollywood movies.” And I can say this because over the last decade,
Sundance has become more and more of not a film festival for narrative
films, but a market. And the filmmakers approach it that way.
They come in here and you ask a filmmaker, “What do you want from your
film?” In the 80’s, people would say, “It’s a film that has a cause and I
need a certain audience to see it, and I want to be sure that it’s
distributed in a way that has integrity and it plays in theaters that have
an audience that I made it for.” The guy in the 90’s says “I want a million
dollars for my movie,” and he has his three financial guys in there, and
they’re talking terms of the deal. After you see it at Sundance, you can
line up at the back of the theater and take a number and meet his ICM or
William Morris agent who’s cutting the deal. And to me, that’s just an
amazing thing. And what happens every year when you go to a place like
Sundance, is there’s the headline movie. Last year it was “Happy, Texas,” a
calculated movie with some stars that the filmmaker was very up front about.
He said, I made this movie to come to Sundance, and make a lot of money.
iW: He had a whole process for making a deal.
Bernard: And he did, he got a lot of money, and his picture died. And the
year before was “The Castle,” and then there was “Spitfire Grill,” maybe
“Shine” was the exception to the rule. But there’s that sort of mentality,
“I’m going to go to Sundance, I’m going to create a buzz, I’m going to make
a lot of money.” And the messages from the movies, a lot of them don’t work.
A movie like Neil LaBute‘s “In the Company of Men” came to Sundance
and everyone hated it. This was a guy who was making some statements, he had
something to say, he was a tremendous filmmaker, and no one bought the
picture. We bought it afterwards when we figured out how to market it. The
people you meet have changed a lot, it’s a whole process now. When is the
last time you met an independent filmmaker from the past that has an ICM
agent, a manager, and you talk to his people before you talk to him?
iW: There are a lot more movies being made now by the specialty divisions of
bigger companies, and they’re acquiring a lot less movies. What does that
mean for the marketplace of acquiring films when you guys are the only big
company that seems to be doing it consistently?
Bernard: What’s changed for the 90’s is that we’ve had to be much more
aggressive with stuff we’ve liked and buy it at a much earlier stage. And it
has paid off.
In the 80’s maybe a third of our movies were bought at script stage, now
[many] of our movies are bought in script form or we will make them in
script form. We made “Winslow Boy” with David Mamet, we just made a
Brazilian picture, “Bossa Nova,” with Bruno Barreto, so we’re in the
business of making movies now, and we’re in the business of reading scripts.
It’s become much more competitive, and we’re a director-oriented company, so
when we go after a script, it has to be connected to a director. We don’t do
development. So we’ll acquire films, we’ll go both ways, so our mandate is
still to do that.
iW: When you’re buying a script, it’s probably from a more established
Bernard: Yeah, but a movie like “The Governess” which was Sandra
Goldbacher‘s first film, we looked at her short and we liked the picture and
we made it. It depends. What I think you have to look at with the other
companies is what is their mandate. Is the way that they’ve figured out how
to make their “classics division” fit into the company. Is it really just
something to feed the ancillary markets around the world from the
international side of the company so that they are going to make movies and
plug it into international deals and make sure they are things that are
compatible with what they have in the other countries. You’d have to talk to
Russell [Schwartz], but Gramercy made pictures, and I think it was pictures
that were selected by PolyGram for them, and that’s what I heard the mandate
was, and it was part of this big international machine, as is Searchlight. I
think they make those movies and they want them to fit into the
international machine; that’s the way they do business.
iW: What are the expectations from your corporate parent?
Bernard: Well, the bigger corporate thing is we need to make money. We said,
“We’re coming to you and we want to make you money,” and every year we’ve
made money. And we make money because we go after every picture with the
intention of making money with it. We don’t have the hit mentality. It’s a
much more long-term kind of viewpoint of the business. Another thing that I
think has changed in the 90’s is that the structure of a lot of these
companies has been set up like the studio. You’ve got someone who tells the
head of marketing to do this, and tell someone to tell someone to tell the
head of marketing to do this, and to tell someone to tell someone to tell
the acquisition guy to do this. So the people that are really in the front
lines in the marketing and distribution of these pictures a lot of times
didn’t have a hand in the acquisition of the pictures, and they’ve just got
to deal with something that’s been thrown at them. So they may not have a
feel for it, they may not have the same kind of emotional connection to it.
An acquisitions person may be buying it because it’s a hot item, but they
have no idea how it’s going to translate into the marketplace because they
just don’t have that kind of experience. And it seems that all these
different departments are very fragmented. Whereas one of the things that
we’ve always tried to do is keep our company small enough that Michael and I
have a hand in the marketing and the distribution and the acquisitions,
because I think that if the head of the company isn’t in touch with the
marketplace — you know, I can tell you what’s going on in Denver — it’s
having that feel for the marketplace and what’s working and what’s not. It’s
just trying to be more innovative to keep up with the times and the
marketplace, because the marketplace changes every month. And if you aren’t
there in part of it, I think you suffer. Theaters get hot, theaters get
cold, critics change, weather patterns are a factor; it’s odd stuff. But
still being able to do that and being able to communicate to the filmmaker
[and] have them be part of the marketing process. I can’t think of a trailer
we’ve made where the filmmaker had a look at it and doesn’t recommend a
scene that might be better than a scene we have that makes it a better film.
There’s a journeyman group of guys that just know this stuff that for some
reason aren’t a part of these companies. You know, a guy like Bingham has
got a sense of history of the business, Ira Deutchman‘s got a sense of
history of the business, but they’re in other lines of work.
The conversation continues on page 2…