For more than 30 years, Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have covered the Cannes Film Festival like a blanket. More than any other specialty distributor–of which only more mainstream Fox Searchlight remains among the studios–SPC values and celebrates and still knows how to release foreign films in theaters, no matter how many others throw in the towel.
This year SPC is backing the first film in the Cannes competition, Mike Leigh’s long-in-the-works passion project “Mr. Turner,” in which Timothy Spall portrays the revolutionary British landscape painter over 25 years as a tortured self-made artist, embraced by the establishment, who found love late in life. It’s Mike Leigh’s masterwork and Sony is the right home for it–in fact, one wonders who else would have any idea what to do with it. In the right hands, the film, which they will release at Christmas, will likely be nominated for quite a few Oscars including Best Actor, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Costumes, Art Direction and Score. I was surprised at the press screening that the burst of applause was muted, however. This mediation on the yin and yang of artistic creation and death was tough for some to take. But it may play well for this year’s high-minded jury, led by Jane Campion.
For the first time SPC are showing five films in the festival Official Selection. Newly anointed Cannes auteur Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is also in competition, while they’re showing out of competition their tenth release by China’s reigning auteur, Zhang Yimou, “Coming Home,” starring Gong Li. Barker and Bernard are also premiering the Soviet hockey doc “Red Army” and screening Sundance prize-winner “Whiplash,” starring Miles Teller (our review).
SPC will also leave the festival with more pickups, which they and acquisitions exec Dylan Leiner have scoped out far in advance. Bernard flits around Cannes screening rooms on his bicycle, checking out as many as seven or eight films a day. Nobody is on the ground at Cannes like SPC. The autonomous Sony subsidiary’s advantage: they can exit a screening and make a decision to buy a film, without having to go through 15 layers of bureaucracy and approvals. “When we walk out we have a plan on how to make it work,” says co-president Tom Bernard, “or we won’t buy the film.”
I spoke to Bernard on the phone in New York on the eve of Cannes.
Anne Thompson: Why showcase these five films at Cannes, when others are giving the fest a pass? Have you ever had this many there?
Tom Bernard: We’ve had three or four, not five. All of these movies are awards movies. We’re introducing them to the film world. Cannes is about discovery: these movies will be discovered in Cannes. No one has seen “Foxcatcher,” “Turner,” “Red Army” or the Zhang Yimou. “Whiplash” was not on the world stage and now it is. They’re all world premieres except for “Whiplash.” All of them have incredible performances and direction and cinematography across the board. It’s Cannes, it’s not just about looking to introduce them to the American press there.
“Cannes has changed a bit. We had “The Fog of War,” one breakthrough doc, and “Inside Job came to Cannes. Now they are programming one or two interesting docs. We’re in that business. Change is happening, which is great.
When did you come aboard “Mr. Turner,” which Leigh has been trying to make for years?
With “Mr. Turner” we invested in it when it was a script. We’ve been involved with that since it began. There are other partners, but we’re a key partner in the film. It looks gorgeous. Timothy Spall is amazing, all the acting is, along with the cinematography, script, costumes–it’s certainly an awards picture. It opens at Christmas.
When did you get involved with your “Capote” director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher”? Why date the film for a November 14 release, a full year after it was scheduled to open at the AFI Film Festival in 2013? And why play Cannes?
He is still finishing the movie, mixing it, right out of the lab to Cannes. We’ve been chasing the movie since we heard there was a script, before “Moneyball.” Then Megan Ellison put it together. We talk to her on the phone, we met her when she first started, before she bought any of the movies. She owns some of the international on the film and had international sales on it at Cannes last year. We picked up what we could.
It was Bennett who wasn’t ready. There was no reason to rush it out, and certainly Bennett has improved the film tremendously, it was great back then and he’s made it even better. Bennett’s got final cut. We’ve seen eleven cuts of the movie and I can’t say one was better than the next. Milos Forman on “Amadeus” edited as long as Bennett did. It’s his process. He did the same thing on “Moneyball,” he spends a lot of time in the editing room and it pays off. Bennett has a complex story to tell in a limited amount of time, he’s done it in spades.
It’s a quality film, it’s as good as “Capote.” In any given year the Palme D’Or winners are in the hands of the judges. And the acting is astounding, it’s a tribute to Bennett Miller, who has already directed an Academy Award-winning actor.
I first met Philip Seymour Hoffman at your Telluride dinner for “Capote.” You’re a hockey player, tell me about “Red Army.”
Some people who I play hockey with sent the director my way. It’s made by a kid who went to Princeton. It’s the history of the Cold War, told through the Red Army hockey team, who made a huge investment during the Cold War to have superior athletics. It’s astounding how the state owned them, how they fell apart as the Soviet Union fell apart, as guys defected to America, they started taking players here. It’s a great parable of what happened with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Releasing foreign films is getting tougher, by many accounts.
It’s easier than it’s ever been. I say bunk to Mr. Kaufman, who had to counter Mr. Foundas, which is silly: “The foreign language films are dying.” Everyone has wanted to write the story of its death since it began. The market for specialized product is prospering like it never prospered before. For reasons I do not understand, people don’t look at it as a business, when more theaters are playing specialized product on a regular basis than ever before. We take our hats off to AMC, Regal and Cinemark, which have devoted marketing teams for indie product. That was unheard of from the commercial circuits in the 80s and 90s. In the last ten years, they are up to speed and away.
What they want to do, because they have so many screens, is to be able to offer a complete spectrum of what’s out there. Not all people see one type of movie. The reason we open against summer blockbusters with some of our product like the Woody Allen [“Magic in the Moonlight,” July 14], is that our audience is not interested in seeing explosions and robots. Those films do quite well. The commercial theaters captured that audience and catered to them with an outreach program. That booking policy has become regular.
How did Indian indie film “The Lunchbox” do so well without being nominated for the foreign Oscar?
“The Lunchbox” is on all those screens, and holding them because they see business in it. There’s no end in sight for the movie, which a segment of the audience wants to see. But the Oscar would have doubled the gross. Landmark continues to program these films, because going all the way back to when Netflix started when it was in the mail and you could build a queue for those who like this and recommend that. With all the online services–Apple iTunes, Netflix, Costco Sundance— people can find out what movies they like and go see them. They promote them before they’re in theatres. The audience has to be able to sort through what’s for them, that’s great. There was a time that film crtiticism got so bad that newspapers cut critics and the older audience lost where to find out what they like. That’s not an issue anymore. Business in Boston disappeared when Jay Carr left. It’s starting to come back, they’re finding a way to get information from various places that deal in this type of film. And not to mention that I can put 700-1000 trailers on a specialized film, that was once unheard of.
You’re in Cannes shopping for pickups–who’s your competition with Universal’s Focus Features gone from the specialty arena?
A lot of the stuff we go after other people don’t go after. Focus made a lot more expensive movies, in the Orion mold, with budgets from $20 to 30 million and a huge foreign sales organization. Then they sold them in internationally, that was the old-school New World model, selling them to foreign partners. We bought movies from Focus. The Weinsteins are different than we are, they’re a foreign sales company, they’re looking for hits, with an exploitation division and Tarantino movies, not like our company. I don’t know if anyone is in the business we are in today: not Fox Searchlight, Focus, IFC, A24, Oscilloscope, or Magnolia. They all have different agendas. IFC goes after some of the same movies, but it’s a cable company. They are trying to lure customers to cable, where they subscribe to a cable system for $300 a month. It’s a way to lure business.
We may be a throwback to the 70s, where theatrical is first.
See trailers below.