Sony Pictures Classics did not sit on the Sundance sidelines as Amazon and Netflix gobbled up media attention.
They left this year’s fest with four films to fill out their 2016 release slate, not to mention the two high-profile movies they showcased at the fest, Don Cheadle’s jazzy bio-portrait "Miles Ahead" (April 1)— which they picked up for the world after it was scheduled to close the New York Film Festival— and Rebecca Miller’s romantic triangle comedy "Maggie’s Plan" (May 20), starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore as brainy and confused New York academics.
At Sundance, Barker and Bernard snapped up worldwide rights to Meera Menon’s Wall Street drama "Equity," which features "Breaking Bad" star Anna Gunn as a high-powered senior investment banker who is trying to come out ahead on a controversial IPO by dodging the people who are dive-bombing her, from an aggressive prosecutor (Alysia Reiner) and a rising "All About Eve’ junior exec (Sarah Megan Thomas) to a more-than-collegial office mate (James Purefoy).
"Tom and I had tagged that movie for a couple months," said Barker in a phone interview, "because movies about Wall Street tend to do well in the theatrical as well as the VOD and ancillary marketplace." He and Bernard were impressed with how Broad Street Pictures producers and co-stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas put the movie together with women in front and behind the camera. "It’s about gender equality and is a strong film that holds its own with other great movies about Wall Street and feels fresh," said Barker. "The screenplay reminds me of what I liked about ‘Mad Men’ in the way the characters interact." Immediately after they watched a private screening for distributors at the start of the festival, they made an offer.
At Sundance they also acquired worldwide rights (excluding France and Germany) to German director Thorsten Schütte’s archival documentary "Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words," covering the performer’s 30 year career in entertainment. "This is a seminal doc on a great artist," said Barker, "not unlike ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ a few years ago."
SPC also picked up all rights in the US and Asia to actor-director John Krasinski’s drama "The Hollars," about a New York artist (Krasinski) who returns to his small-town home when his mother (Margo Martindale) falls ill, reengaging with his family and old friends; and North America, Latin America, Germany, Australia/New Zealand, Scandinavia and Asian rights to Otto Bell’s Mongolian epic true story "The Eagle Huntress," about a 13-year-old girl who is striving to become the first female Eagle Hunter in the 2,000 years of male-dominated history, which is executive produced by Morgan Spurlock and actress Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”).
In a year when the film industry was anxious about the way that Netflix and Amazon were driving up festival prices (and SPC was in the hunt at lower levels for such high-end deals as "The Birth of a Nation" and "Manchester by the Sea"), Barker and Bernard just stuck to their knitting. "We’ve been around a long time," said Barker. "We learned many years ago that competition comes in many forms and changes all the time. This is the new form. Years ago, we learned to just pursue the film we want, make the highest offers we think we should make, give our best pitch, and if it becomes a bidding war and the numbers get way out of hand, it doesn’t make sense for us to pursue a film that we’d overpay for by leaps and bounds. All of sudden that is not a good piece of business."
While there has always been an older core theatrical audience, Sony targets many different moviegoing sectors. "There’s also a core audience of women of all ages," said Barker, "also reliable followers of specialized films who are college grads, couples in their 30s, and a gay audience who have always embraced specialized films. Those audiences are still there, willing to go the movies at the theater. What’s more difficult is how to make a film distinctive enough for them to select over so many other ways people get their entertainment, from sports events like the final Mets game, the highest rated ever, to all these TV shows you can binge watch. This is all competition for these movies as far as the entertainment hours of the consumer. That’s what makes things exciting: how do you make a specific film distinctive enough for people to notice, to be the movie they choose?"
Sometimes the market doesn’t support certain films. "A lot has to do with a moment in time," Barker said. "Last fall all those true life movies did not work: ‘Our Brand is Crisis,’ ‘Steve Jobs,’ and ‘Truth.’ People were into the debates: Donald Trump is more colorful and exciting than anything on a movie screen. We have to stop filling the fall with all our movies, there were way too many. That was one of the reasons we decided to open ‘Miles Ahead’ in April and ‘I Saw the Light in March. It makes sense that we shouldn’t be knocking each other in the same period of time."
Barker and Bernard are always alert to the changing market. "There are now so many ways that a film can be distributed," said Barker. "The key is to find the right, best way for a specific film. There are many films out there, and what’s best is not always the typical theatrical windows. There are movies where those windows are the right way to go, or you might have challenging material that people need to see and love, that needs breathing room and word of mouth for the film to grow, those are the kind of films we pursue. ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ was on screens for one year." And won the documentary Oscar.