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Tom Bernard: Empowering Filmmakers

Tom Bernard: Empowering Filmmakers

You can’t be dependent on somebody else to put your film into the marketplace. “Empowered filmmaker” is the mantra for today’s indies.

EDITORS NOTE: Last night in New York City, Tom Bernard delivered this speech at the first indieWIRE Filmmaker Toolkit Series event hosted by HSBC. In the coming days, indieWIRE will publish additional coverage of yesterday’s launch event, “Ask The Experts: Strategizing Film Fests & Distribution Today.”

If you look back in the late 70’s/early 80’s when the modern day independent film movement started, filmmakers like John Sayles, Allison Anders, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Jim Jarmusch, Victor Nunez, Steven Soderbergh and Bob Young, etc., all had extensive knowledge of the business of film that went hand in hand with their filmmaking skills. You can look today and see that all of these filmmakers still have very independent operations where they are very much a part of the distribution and business process for their movies.

They established very early in the creative process what they wanted to happen with their films and then each plotted a course using to their advantage festivals, sales agents, producer’s reps, lawyers, critics, distributors, publicists, etc., as their tools to bring to fruition the goals they set for their film.

With so many distribution options available today you as a filmmaker are the one person that will be able to successfully control the destiny of your film. I say this because of all the carpetbaggers that exist feeding off of the fruits of your labor have their own interests ahead of you. Sure they will perform the services you have hired them to do, but without your direction they will weave your movie into the goals that serve their company.

What I mean (for example): some filmmakers hire a sales agent (a great tool if used properly). But should you be giving away anywhere between 5 – 15% of the lifetime profits from your film for free legal work and a sales strategy that usually is comprised of screening your film at a festival, getting all the buyers in a room and seeing who can come up with the most money?

The 5 – 15% could end up to be millions (to the sales agent) if your film was “The Blair Witch Project.” I tell you this story because a filmmaker empowered with the knowledge of the ramifications of a deal one can make with a sales agent will not be in the position to be taken advantage of. And if, like with “The Blair Witch Project,” they had an understanding of the marketplace, the filmmaker would be a driving force in how they presented their film to buyers with all the knowledge of the different options available for distribution and what each one means financially. If you don’t know what the ins and outs of the financials of PPV are or what distribution windows close if you go day and date with a cable channel, you could end up a year and a half later wishing you knew those answers when your film was sold.

Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Every distribution avenue that currently exists is a valid option.

You as an empowered filmmaker must have the knowledge to make the right choice. Are you directing your film and asking your mom what camera angles you should shoot on every shot, or are you making those choices yourself? Which way would be better?

EDITORS NOTE: On page two is a list of theatrical distribution companies that was provided by Sony Pictures Classics last night. It will be revised and updated for a future update on indieWIRE.


How do I empower myself in today’s world? Here are a few ideas.

1) Mentors. Find filmmakers or producers that have been through the process of getting a film into the marketplace and develop a relationship with them. Surely they will have information on what they wished they knew when they were in your shoes.

You need to find out all the companies that are currently in the marketplace that you want to distribute your film in. Then research their employees to see if they are newbies or veterans. See what films they have released recently and contact the filmmakers who sold them the film and ask what the experience was like. You will find this most enlightening. The same holds true for sales agencies, PR companies, lawyers, etc. Do not take just the success stories. Look into the failures also.

2) There are many ways you can impact your film’s life by using the tools you hire to put your film into the marketplace.

For example:

– What time of year do you want your film to be opened in?
– Consultation on when ancillary windows should be opened.
– What theaters should your film play in?
– Which critics should see it first?
– What markets will your film have strength in?
– Collaboration with the distribution team, and on and on!

Filmmaking is an art form that incorporates the business of film as part of the art.

You can’t make a film and think now it is done and hand it over to a stranger that you think will make it work. It would be like having a baby and giving it away to a couple you think looks good to raise the child and then you hope for the best.


As a group you need to reach out to all these organizations that say they are there to help indie filmmakers and urge them to come up with programs and resources to empower filmmakers with the information and tools to guide your films through the marketplace. These organizations spend so much time looking for nonprofit grants they have lost sight of the original goals established when they were formed. IFP, Sundance, F.I.N.D., Women in Film, DGA, etc., should all have mentor programs, data on deals, fees and feedback on sales agents, PR companies and distributors as well as programs that can explain the different distribution opportunities – the pluses, the minuses and the financials. They should create courses that can be taught at colleges that deal with and explain all these issues.

If you are not empowered with the information you are shit out of luck.

We have had movies with Francis Ford Coppola, Louis Malle, Pedro Almodovor, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, Allison Anders, Todd Solondz, to name a few, and they are all very much involved in all aspects of the distribution in each window. If a box office gross seems off in a market like Minnesota, a call would come in Monday from Mr. Coppola asking, “What happened?” I have similar stories for all the rest. (Sitting in the screening room with Mr. Allen going over the merits of 25 ad comps for the poster. Deciding that Todd Solondz would be the best person to do a photo shoot with the wiener girl for the “Welcome to the Dollhouse” poster.)

Being an empowered filmmaker should give you the confidence to control the difficult choices one has to make to give your film the best chance for success in the market place. As Chevy Chase said to Danny in “Caddy Shack”:

“Be the ball.”

— on page two, a list of theatrical distributors provided by Tom Bernard at last night’s event —

information provided by Sony Pictures Classics

Sony Pictures Classics:
Tom Bernard and Michael Barker

Focus Features:
James Schamus

Fox Searchlight:
Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula

Weinstein Company:
Harvey and Bob Weinstein

Relativity / Overture:
Formerly Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett, now run day-to-day by Peter Adee. Acquired by Relativity Media, Summer 2010, strictly as a distribution operation.

Jon Feltheimer, Joe Drake, Steve Beeks

Rob Friedman, Patrick Wachsberger (Summit International: David Garret)

CBS Films

Bill Pohlad owns. Status currently unclear.

GK Films:
Graham King, Peter Schlessel runs company. Scope of activity, slate not yet clear.

Magnolia Pictures:
Eamonn Bowles

IFC Films:
Jonathan Sehring

Samuel Goldwyn/IDP:
Meyter Gottlieb and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.

Roadside Attractions:
Howard Cohen, Eric D’Arbeloff
“CA$H,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The September Issue”

Music Box:
William Schopf, Ed Arentz
“Tell No One,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Donald Krim, Gary Palmucci
“Ajami,” “Harvard Beats Yale”

Nancy Gerstman, Emily Russo
“A Town Called Panic,” “Afghan Star,” “Mid-August Lunch”

Adam Yauch (head), David Fenkel
“A Film Unfinished,” “Wendy and Lucy”

Cinema Guild: (focus on docs)
Philip and Mary-Ann Hobel
“Sweetgrass,” “35 Shots of Rhum,” “Beaches of Agnes”

Strand Releasing:
Marcus Hu, Jon Gerrans
“Carancho,” “A Secret,” “The Edge of Heaven”

First Independent:
Gary Rubin
“Holy Rollers,” “Big Fan,” “Gigantic”

First Run Features: (concentrates on docs)
Seymour Wishman
“Stonewall Uprising,” “Crude”

David Schult
“Collapse,” “Valentino,” “Baader Meinhoff Complex,” “The Pool”

Richard Abramowitz
“Anvil, The Story of Anvil,” “Neil Young Trunk Show,” “Romance and Cigarettes”

Balcony Releasing: (mostly docs)
Connie White
“Blessed is the Match,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”

Big Pictures: (Mumbai-based division of Reliance that released “Hulla” (2008) in U.S. Unclear if currently active.

Cinema Libre:
founder, Philippe Diaz, VP Distribution, Richard Castro
“Fuel,” “The End of Poverty”

Eros: (Based in London, Mumbai and New Jersey)
Bollywood titles: “Omkara”

Indiepix: Bob Alexander (president), Barnet Liberman (chair)
“Women Without Men,” “The End of America”

Kidtoon Films: owned by Cinedigm, maker of booking software, exhibition equipment etc. Label for special child-friendly matinee programming.
“Spookley the Square Pumpkin,” “My Little Pony: A Very Pony Place”

National Geographic:
Daniel Battsek
“Restrepo,” “Amreeka”

Newmarket (re-constituted in recent times):

New Films:
Tim Swain
“Multiple Sarcasms,” “Giallo”

Anchor Bay Films:
president Bill Clark
“City Island,” “Solitary Man”

GKIDS (films for children):
run by Dave Jesteadt, founder of NY International Children’s Film Festival
“The Secret of Kells,” “Sita Sings the Blues”

Gigantic Releasing (some theatrical and online VOD):
Mark Lipsky

Liberation Entertainment:
Jay Boberg
“Tokyo!” “Shotgun Stories”

Image Entertainment:
Don McKay
“Dare,” “44 Inch Chest”

Shaun Hill
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead,” “L.A. Twister”

International Film Circuit:
Wendy Lidell
“Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg,” “The Business of Being Born”

Arthouse Films:
David Koh, Lily Bright, Stanley Buchthal
“Waste Land,” “Beautiful Losers,” “The Cats of Mirikitani”

Shadow Distribution:
Ken Eisen
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love”

First Look International:
Avi Lerner, Chris Cooney
“Trans Siberian,” “Meet Bill”
Related: First Look Pictures Releasing:
Trevor Short (CEO), Andy Greunberg (theatrical exec)
“Bad Lieutenant”

After Dark (concentrates on horror film):
“Echelon Conspiracy,” “The Broken”

New Yorker:
(re-constituted under Jose Lopez)

Red Flag:
Paul Federbush and Laura Kim
“Prop 8”

Regent Releasing:
Paul Colichman (CEO), Stephen P. Jarchow (Chair), John A. Lambert (president)
“I Killed My Mother,” “About Elly,” “Little Ashes,” “Stephanie Daley”

Rialto Pictures: (mostly re-issues)
Bruce Goldstein, Adrienne Halpern
“Ran” (re-issue), “Army of Shadows”

Lorber Films:
Richard Lorber, VP Elizabeth Sheldon
“Mademoiselle Chambon,” “Two In The Wave,” “Tony Manero”

UTV: Bollywood

Walking Shadows:
Alexander Nohe
“Colin,” “The Nature of Existence,” “Blood Equity,” “Burning Man”

City Lights:
Danny Fisher
“The Ten,” “Manda Bala”

Film Movement:
Adley Gartenstein. DVD-of-the-Month club, some theatrical.
“Somers Town,” “El Dorado”

Rocky Mountain Pictures:
Ron Rodgers and Randy Slaughter
“Expelled,” “The Early Years of Billy Graham”

Vivendi Entertainment:
Tom O’Malley
“An American Carol,” “The Stone Angel”

Irwin Olian
“St. Trinians,” “Captain Abu Raed”

Screen Media:
Robert Baruc
“Formosa Betrayed,” “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”

Phase 4 Films:
Barry Meyerowitz
“Finding Bliss,” “JCVD”

Freestyle Releasing:
Mark Borde (pres), Susan Jackson (co-pres)
“Bottle Shock,” “Wristcutters,” “A Haniting in Connecticut”

IDP (division of Samuel Goldwyn):
Michael Silberman
“Trumbo,” “Mountain Patrol”

Mitropolous Films:
MJ Peckos
“Gotta Dance,” “He Was a Quiet Man”

Mark Urman
“The Greatest,” “Disgrace”

Slow Hand Releasing:
Marty Zeidman
“The Providence Effect,” “Street Dreams”

Variance Films:
Dylan Marchetti
“The Lottery,” “Walking on Dead Fish,” Smother”

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , ,


Ramaa Mosley

Great discussion. Thank you for the open responses. I need to raise 300k to shoot my movie. Any suggestions?

David Geertz

Thanks for this wonderful article and bitch session in the comments! I’m actually benefited from BUBCHIEFS and TED HOPE’S comments, and I have taken from this article the needed material to go back to the drawing board and begin building something online for people to use.

There are countless avenues to have your film seen and delivered now, but what I am hearing is that there needs to be an online tracking system that provides low cost transparency and accounting that can be accessed by filmmakers and marketers to ensure proper payouts are made on work performed within specific jurisdictions?

I’m on it….see you in October with a plan!

Sydney Levine

This is great information and I will share it with my students at UCLA in the fall course Marketing and Distributing Independent Films across All Platforms.


Since you were the EP of this film, you know Jeff Feuerzeig won “best director” at Sundance for the Devil in Daniel Johnston almost 6 years ago. Where has Jeff been for the last 6 years? What has SPC or Tom Bernard done to empower or reward their filmmaker? What have you done to empower, reward or thank Jeff (or Henry) for including you on the project they sweat and paid to make?

Having a theatrical release for your film and deriving a fair share of the revenues derived from that release — and all subsequent revenue streams — are equally important values. I doubt any filmmaker would forfeit their profits, in perpetuity, if they knew their distributor would use the theatrical release of their film as a loss leader to generate revenues down the line for themselves only, and hide all the profits behind stone walls of litigation and obstructionist accounting practices. Or worse, do this without really putting ANY effort whatsoever into releasing a project, just to have it included in
their catalogues.

I wonder if there’s a way for you, Tom or any of your colleagues to help empower filmmakers to create enforceable contracts and keep them from having their creative and financial rights stripped away from them.

The biggest step towards filmmaker empowerment is for filmmakers to finally now and forever realize they no longer need distributors OR film festivals in order to find their audiences and effectively monetize their films across all (or at least most) revenue streams.

The sooner they realize this, the more empowered they will be.


Ok, sorry, I can’t keep my mouth shut:

Tom Bernard: You warn filmmakers about giving away 5%-15% to film reps and consultants because if their film goes viral — like Blair Witch did — that percentage could translate into millions of dollars!!! Sound the alarms!!!

Meanwhile Distribution companies like yours have typically taken 50% of “shared revenue” plus expenses, and then “plus expenses” winds up meaning 100% and more; i.e., sending filmmakers invoices for expenses that go beyond the recoupment figure — that you set and control.

The game has been changing since the emergence of digital distribution, but it’s always been rigged. And now old and new sharks — like you — are trying to stay on top of these changes via every discrete revenue stream real or imagined in order to keep the game rigged in your favor (in perpetuity throughout the universe…)

Where was your ball, Danny, when Henry Rosenthal and Jeff Fueurzeig — the brilliant producer and director of The Devil in Daniel Johnson were asking you and your company for an honest accounting of revenues received for their film — after you marketed it expensively and against their better creative judgement — at their cost… Or Steve Martin — the incredible documentary filmmaker who made Theremin and then after going into business with your company with the content he generated, spent the next 15 years chasing you down for an honest accounting and being told to go fly a kite?

Anyone who looks to Tom Bernard as a “champion” of independent filmmaker’s rights is a naive idiot. Because people like Tom Bernard are the obstacle to filmmaker empowerment, not the cure.

Ted Hope

Bubchief, I was the Exec Prod of The Devil & DJ. And I am not someone who is an apologist for the corporate players, but I, in all due respect,don’t think you are seeing the full picture. Filmmakers have a choice, as Jeff, Henry, and myself did, in choosing whom and how to release their films. We all wanted a theatrical release for that film. We chose to work with Tom. SPC, mostly due to Tom’s passion, was the one way we could have that for our film — at a level that we felt the film required. No one else was offering a theatrical. No one else was offering to front the expenses that SPC did. No one else was offering any decent advance other than SPC. This was the choice we made & they loved the film and made that clearer than anyone. Granted that was a different time, but it was still a moment where every penny counted and we all felt that, filmmakers & distributors, every step of the way. Maybe you read different words than I when you read Tom’s, but in my opinion, Tom is recommending that we all arm ourselves with knowledge and expertise to help in the campaign. SPC is not a company that works simply for the fee. They are not middle men. They take bold risks and try to manage them. They do it because they love the films, like those that made them. They do it to bring it to the audiences. Tom is recommending not to rely on those that work just for a fee, and for all filmmakers to come armed & ready to collaborate. Movies seldom work but we are all fortunate to get to work with those that have the taste, experience, and knowhow that the established distros like SPC have. The more that we learn that can complement that the better we all will be.


Tools of the trade. IMO, Film Journal International has been providing a solid “tool kit” for decades, in print and online, covering–among many other industry areas–production slates and distribution companies, both major domestic and international, and indie. So you’ll find Paramount and Cavu Pictures, for example.

Its special “Distribution Guide” contains numerous companies complete with addresses, web site, and contact staff, and the list is accessible online.

Always interesting to track in its “Blue Sheets” what announced titles make it into production.

Worth exploring at


[Comment was removed at the request of its author.]


Tough racked getting your film out there… Real tough. Even tougher getting help (finishing funds, etc.), especially if you are not affiliated with any group, company, organization, or have no representation. That’s true independents, and it’s not necessarily a great place to be… I have been at it for many years, that is with just my one feature film, and it’s a massive up-hill climb.

Great list of companies, but most do not accept unsolicited materials. Get past that hurdle and you may be in business. I am a very Empowered Filmmaker, and also a disenfranchised one. But I’m not willing to give up.


Terrific list of distributors. So who on the list is taking advantage of VOD to reach consumers? We’d love to tell your story and cover your films to our readers.

– Britt Bensen


Information is power – I do this for short filmmakers who are constantly getting manipulated into bs deals that leave them without the rights to their work long past a time when it would still be of value to them.
I do service deals with short filmmakers – a flat super low fee and all future earnings of their films goes directly to them.
Some distribution companies (not all, but some) have become so bloated with overhead that the filmmaker is often the last one paid, if they ever get paid at all.
Call me old fashioned but I believe being a distribution agent is about getting the film the audience it deserves, alongside putting as much $$ into the filmmakers/content producers pockets AND making sure filmmakers’ expectations are doable from the start.
Great talk and so glad you’re calling out the non-profit groups to provide additional services to their members and filmmakers.
– Roberta Munroe

Ted Hope

Great talk, Tom. Great list, Tom.

City Lights is no more though, and you are missing ATO who is distributing Mao’s Last Dancer now (through IDP set up). And what about Mark Urman’s Palladin?

One of the keys to true filmmaker empowerment is actual access to the numbers and on a timely basis. I think all filmmakers would be drawn to work with a company that helped demystify marketing and publicity spends. Ditto on demystifying DVD and VOD and other digi distro numbers. Even more so, a distribber that provided the filmmaker with true ownership of the data that their film generated.

Please keep leading the march to change and facilitating true empowerment. Thank you.


Thanks for the mention, but Shadow Distribution was not the distributor of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” (if I’m not mistaken, that was the late lamented Artisan.) Among the 30 plus films we’ve distributed, in addition to the other one of ours that you mentioned, “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” are “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” “Latcho Drom,” “Heading South, “THe Weather Underground,” “The Yes Men Fix the World” and the upcoming “The Kids Grow Up.”


We at Walking Shadows do that for you and with you.

We put films into Movie Theaters, the Retail Channel, through VOD channels (traditional & internet/digital), sell them overseas, manufacture retail versions (currently DVD & BluRay).

We’re into fair deals. If we’re covering all the costs, we pay royalties. If the filmmakers are covering the hard costs, we offer distribution deals. If the filmmakers are covering the costs and paying fees, we offer service deals.

We monetize your content, put in front of the buyer (whether it’s on the wholesale, retail, other B2B, or consumer level), and get you paid.


speaking on behalf of The Film Collaborative, we are working on addressing Part 3. We are compiling information and distribution scenarios that filmmakers can use to plot their distribution strategies and will make this information available as soon as possible.

It is no surprise that this information isn’t available yet because we are at a turning point for the first time in film distribution history where films no longer NEED the services of outside companies to reach an audience. While the services of such companies can be helpful, filmmakers are able to go direct in order to monetize. They just need help in determining the best course for their film and to know it early in the process, not when they are in a hurry to recoup and have little money to put into that effort so they take whatever is offered in order to feel they are doing something.

I think you are right, the key to all of this is people sharing information, fostering dialog and thriving as a whole community. Very little of this is done at the moment and it most likely won’t be the old guard with legacy mindsets who will lead this, but the newer minds coming up now who are open to trading information, collaborating and connecting with others.

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