While managing the Showcase Cinema, a suburban Dallas art-house in the early 80’s, Picturehouse president Bob Berney infamously screened Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Every Man For Himself“; his local patrons demanded refunds. But it wasn’t long before Berney, who had worked as an AMC Theaters projectionist while studying in Austin, would open the Inwood, the successful central Dallas cinema that boasted a popular lobby bar. It was there that he began to make a name for himself. The exec will be recognized Thursday for his career thus far as the recipient of the second annual Hamptons International Film Festival and indieWIRE Industry Toast.
“When I was running the theaters it was the excitement of putting on a show,” Berney explained, in a conversation with indieWIRE this week, “It’s amazing to look at it now because its kind of the same, but on a bigger level.”
Earlier this year, Berney and his team at Newmarket Films were essentially acquired by HBO Films and New Line Cinema to launch Picturehouse, the new company that opened its doors this Spring and formally kicked off at Cannes back in May. The outfit’s first releases have included Gus Van Sant‘s “Last Days“, Raymond De Felitta‘s “The Thing About My Folks,” and Gidi Dar‘s upcoming “Ushpizin.” Also on tap are Michael Winterbottom‘s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” Mary Harron‘s “The Notorious Bettie Page” and Steven Shainberg‘s “Fur.”
“I didn’t plot this out, it was accidental (and) kind of random,” explained Berney, adding that moving through his career he has pursued opportunities that have allowed him to stay independent. After running movie theaters, he detailed he, “wanted to work in distribution, but have some kind of choice in the films — (it was) out of the sheer joy of doing stuff from the outside, we all did it for joy as much as hoping we’d make money.”
The ‘we’ in that statement includes a consistent group of key staff that has worked with Berney at numerous companies along the way, including Rob Schwartz, John Lange, and Molly Albright. “They have really been with me the whole time,” said Berney. “We really loved the films and the filmmakers we got to work with, because (they) were outside (the system), it was both opportunistic for us and we really liked the projects.
“We really wanted to work on films that we thought were really cool and great, but also taking advantage of the fact that no one else wanted to do them,” Berney said yesterday, who worked in distribution for Banner Entertainment, Orion, Triton and FilmDallas. Later, in what he now sees as a key turning point in his career, he came to the rescue of Todd Solondz‘ “Happiness“, handling the film’s release when Universal Studios forced its specialty film division to drop the movie back in 1998.
But the big moment came three years later when Berney handled the release of Christopher Nolan‘s “Memento” for Newmarket Films. “Memento made such a splash for me, (it was) the biggest film I’d worked on,” Berney said, “The gatekeepers thought it wouldn’t work, that the audience wasn’t there, or smart enough.” Asked to look back and explain why it worked, generating more than $25 million at the box office, he said, “It was a genre film — I don’t know if I really realized it then — the film noir puzzle aspect of it.” He sees a connection between “Memento” and the current success of David Cronenberg‘s “The History of Violence,” adding, “It’s a genre film, but its off, not straight ahead.”
Success with such unlikely hits as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” followed and Berney’s time at IFC Films catapulted him to national awareness as a passionate marketer of tough indie and foreign films. The attention from mainstream media paved the way for his biggest successes.
While heading Newmarket Films, Berney achieved a highpoint in his career on Oscar weekend in Los Angeles last year, toasting a pair of Academy Award nominations for two more unlikely hits, Charlize Theron in “Monster” and Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider” on the same weekend that he would open the greatest distribution success of his career, Mel Gibson‘s “The Passion Of The Christ.” Almost exactly one year later, Berney surprised industry insiders with the launch of Picturehouse.
“Looking back, I feel lucky (to have been) in the right place at the right moments and lucky that I have had this consistent group around me, that we have been able to stick together. We’ve made some mark, I am really thankful, and lucky.”
“When I look back personally, ‘Whale Rider’ is the film that I think stays with me,” Berney said, “I just saw (Niki Caro’s) new film (“North Country“), and it reminded me how life changing (“Whale Rider”) was for people, especially younger girls who saw it. It was inspirational, it did really influence a lot of people, and it changed people.”
Looking ahead, Berney is aware of the challenges that face him as he embarks on developing Picturehouse with HBO Films and New Line Cinema. “For me, someone who loves so many things, it’s a management challenge to try to keep the spirit of what I a was doing alive in a different organization. It’s a difference skill set that I have to learn,” Berney explained.
“We have to remember why HBO and New Line wanted to bring on me and the Newmarket team, to make these discoveries, to find the diamonds in the rough or the gems that can be turned into that.” Thinking about it further, after a pause he added, “The challenge will be not to take on too many things and lose that personal touch.”
Over the years Berney has achieved success with a number of films, and faced challenges with others. Along the way the business has evolved and there is much more competition to find the potential hits and difficulties shepherding those movies towards success. “In some ways, I am a victim of my own success,” Berney explained, “Now, its hard to break out, its hard to keep films in theaters. In general it’s a much better situation than there was eight or ten years ago when none of these opportunities were there.”
Continuing, Berney said, “Its still much better for filmmakers and producers, its better than having so few outlets. Even thought it’s hard and we all complain every week, it’s still much better.”