ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION: The Year According to Bob Berney, Eamonn Bowles, and Ted Hope, Part 1
by Eugene Hernandez
With the year coming to an end, we at indieWIRE thought it would be a good
opportunity to take a step back and look at the year 2002. To do that, we
invited three indie film stalwarts to join us in the indieWIRE conference
room for a discussion. Each one — Bob Berney, Eamonn Bowles
and Ted Hope — made a move towards even greater independence this
year, each within a different area of the film business.
As the head of distribution and marketing for IFC Films, Bob Berney
released the hit Mexican film, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and managed the
overwhelming release of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for producers
Gold Circle Films and Playtone. Amidst the hype as the film
continued to earn millions each week, Berney announced his plans to join
Newmarket to launch a new distribution outfit. The new company’s
first release, “Real Women Have Curves” has been a steady fall hit.
Upcoming Newmarket releases include “Open Hearts,” “Spun,” and
Eamonn Bowles, an expert marketer and distributor, expanded on his success
with the late Shooting Gallery Film Series and moved into exhibition
at Magnolia Pictures, which launched in late 2001. In 2002, his
company found success with the releases of the Israeli comedy “Late
Marriage” and the French thriller “Read My Lips.” The films
struck a chord with critics and audiences and each topped the $1 million
mark in grosses, netting the upstart company a nice profit. The company’s
emerging art-house chain owns venues in Dallas, Denver, and Boulder.
Magnolia will release “Under the Skin of the City” in March.
No doubt the biggest story of 2002 for the independent business was the
acquisition of Good Machine by Universal Studios. The
combination of USA Films and Good Machine to create Focus
Features (headed by David Linde and James Schamus) saw
Good Machine partner Ted Hope spinning off with Anthony Bregman and
Anne Carey to create This Is That, a small boutique production
outfit. The trio are already off and running on “21 Grams,” the new
film from “Amores Perros” director Alejandro Gonzalez
Innaritu, Michel Gondry‘s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind” (written by Charlie Kaufman), Kip Williams’ “Door in the
Floor,” and Bob Pulcini and Sherry Springer Berman‘s
“Family Planning” In addition, Hope produced Pulcini and Springer
Berman’s “American Splendor,” which will screen at Sundance
Berney, Bowles, and Hope sat down with indieWIRE editor-in-chief Eugene
Hernandez and senior editor Matthew Ross earlier this month to offer their
perspectives on the year 2002. The discussion will be published in indieWIRE
in two parts (today and Tuesday, December 31).
Eugene Hernandez: The goal here was to look back on the past year, as
well as look forward. So we picked three people who we thought might have a
lot to talk about. We think that what you guys have each done this year,
individually and in different sectors of the industry, deserves notice. Was
it a good year? Was it a bad year? Are there any things that stand out, or
was it an average year?
Eamonn Bowles: Basically, I think this year has been a continuation
of the last few years in that the difference between the upside and the
downside is more and more pronounced. The upside now being two hundred
million dollars or more with “Greek Wedding,” and the downside being
absolute, abject failure where virtually no revenue comes back at all. Not
profits, revenues. And I think this year was a continuation of that. But one
thing I did see this year was people didn’t have to spend that much money
and actually had some level of success. There were two of them. Lot
47‘s “The Fast Runner” and Wellspring‘s “NOTORIOUS
C.H.O.” Some of the smaller, truly “independent companies,” were able to
not put themselves at incredible financial risk and were able to generate a
substantial profit and profile for these films. Ever since the
“Miramax-ation” of independent film, you really were chastised for
not risking large sums of money. Now people realize that money is just one
of the aspects of marketing a film. It really comes in second to publicity
and profile. There’s no question about it in my mind.
Hernandez: Did any of the films Magnolia released this year work in
Bowles: I just think we were in a position where there wasn’t
pressure on us to keep spending. You know, “Read My Lips” is one of the
films that we spent a little over half a million dollars on, acquisition
fees and everything, and it grossed about $1.4 million, and we have “Late
Marriage,” which we spent about $450,000 on, and that grossed $1.6 million.
While these films weren’t runaway hits by any means, they have been very
profitable for us. The producers, who were American and used to the
Hollywood system, did not put a lot of pressure on us to go out and try to
make it a huge hit. I’m also a firm believer that if something is going to
work on a large scale, it will demonstrate that on a smaller scale at first.
Bob Berney: Well, in a way it’s funny because “My Big Fat Greek
Wedding” has sort of skewed everything.
Bowles: What other [independent] distributor has released a $200
Berney: It’s amazing. You know, this is real business. This is just
as good as the studios. I think exhibitors, even the major chains, are
giving indie films somewhat more consideration. “Greek Wedding” was the
first “indie film” that the senior community got. We really did try to keep
it small for a long time, in order to make it big. We never did go very wide
until about the fourth month, in August. We opened in April and we tried to
keep it in the same theaters, keep it sold out, keep the spending really
low. It was really low until we went wide. Then all the pressure hit later
to keep it going, to keep it bigger and now it’s a studio film.
Maybe even more so, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was a highlight. It wasn’t $200
million but I think it also broke some new ground or opened the door for
wider Latino markets, following what “Amores Perros” did [in 2001].
Ted Hope: When I saw “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” I thought I was going to
see a raunchy sex film, but it’s really a gay film. Whatever happened to
straight American decadence? How did all those people go see it in America?
You know, that’s normally the audience for a specialized film. People age
fifty and above, people who live in urban areas, so politically correct.
Inherently now, that’s not even an issue. It’s never even mentioned. Had
that film come out seven years ago, that would have been a big thing.
Berney: When we showed each exhibitor “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” no one
said anything. It was amazing because some of the exhibitors who might have
commented on the homosexual scene, didn’t do it. Everyone just loved the
film. That was, I think, one of my favorite moments this year. These people
from across the board, everyone watched it and they either liked it or they
didn’t. No one said, that it shouldn’t be shown.
Hope: I would like to look at “Y Tu Mama Tambien” as a much better
example of all that went really well in indie film this year than “Greek
Wedding.” There are also a good number of other foreign films that really
delivered. Because of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” within a year, there were
probably more foreign movies optioned for remakes in America. People are
talking about how an audience can’t deal with subtitles, yet all these
movies came over and played well.
Bowles: When “Crouching Tiger” made $130 million, no one in
our lifetime ever thought you’d see a subtitled film do that kind of
Berney: I think foreign-language films are doing business. There’s
more of them and I think they’ve found a younger audience, which is great. I
think for awhile they thought it would sort of just die off, that some
college students weren’t really going to go to them and would go to the
latest studio film instead. But they have done surprisingly well.
Hope: This is the year that the sophistication of the business
methods have reached such a zenith that people can hype or market their film
to incredibly specific audiences now. The audiences know how to find them.
Bowles: The studios have gotten incredibly good. Let’s face it,
they’re marketing, they’re targeting. It’s as close as they’re going to get
Hope: This year, it seems the most personal, the most artistic movies
of the year are studio films.
Bowles: With independent directors.
Hope: Whether it’s Spike [Jonze] and Charlie [Kaufman] doing
“Adaptation” or Soderbergh with “Solaris” or P.T.
Anderson with “Punch-Drunk Love,” these are movies that should be
in the independent sector. The problem is that after 10 years of creating
the apparatus that allows people to understand how they gain access to this
world, business has become festish-ized within the independent community and
with the creative people to such an extent. When I started, it was hard to
get films made by certain directors because the people that had the fingers
on the purse strings were worried that those filmmakers would try to make a
statement, an artistic statement. That concern doesn’t exist anymore. It’s
not about what are we going to say, it’s more about how do we make sure the
people in the seats are ready to see it. The size of the budgets for these
personal statements is remarkable. I have no idea how those audiences found
They want the films that will get the Academy Award nominations. It
used to be that when you went to Sundance, your film would come out in June
or July. Now they acquire these movies to fill up the end-of-the-year slots
so they can get the Academy Award nominations. When the market success of a
Sundance film is getting five Academy Award nominations, as we did with
“In the Bedroom,” it becomes pathetic. These are the films that are
bucking the trends, not used to fill out your end of the year release slate,
the most crowded time of the year now.
Berney: I think that’s true. The fall has been crowded with
everything being pushed to the end of the year, so now you have everybody
releasing films along with the studios. Now it’s tough. Not only can you
actually not go to them all, but it’s brutal in the theaters in New York and
LA. Even with more theaters in New York and new theaters in LA, they’re
still all booked. It’s really tough and you’ll get pushed out of the
competition. In the last few years, LA in particular, it’s always been very
hard around Christmas.
[Part Two of the discussion will be published on December 31.]