HBO, New Line, Newmarket, Fine Line Foursome Paves The Way for An Indiewood Player: Bob Berney
by Eugene Hernandez
Amidst increasing turmoil and speculation at Hollywood studio specialty units, Time Warner's HBO and New Line divisions have joined forces to announce the launch of a new specialty company for releasing what they are calling 'independent films'. The move apparently marks the end of the road for two specialized distribution brands, Fine Line Features and Newmarket Films. As HBO and New Line are acquiring the three-year-old Newmarket Films unit from Newmarket Entertainment Group partners Chris Ball and William Tyrer as the foundation for the new entity, Fine Line will be folded in and its name retired, according to insiders. Notably, the new HBO/New Line venture will be based at Newmarket's Fifth Ave. offices in Manhattan, rather than at HBO or New Line headquarters.
Rumors About the Other Warner Specialty Film Company
With industry insiders speculating about the fate of Miramax and the Weinsteins, and others spreading rumors about what might be happening at other shingle's like Warner Independent, Bob Berney has rapidly ascended to the top of a what will undoubtedly be, given the resources of all involved, a major new company for specialty and independent film.
Intriguingly, late Wednesday night in Los Angeles official sources at Warner Bros. countered persistent rumors that changes are afoot at the corporation's Warner Independent Pictures unit. A corporate spokesperson clearly emphasized to indieWIRE that Mark Gill is not leaving WIP, the specialty sibling of this new HBO/New Line company. Rumors of Gill's departure intensified in the last day and then hit fever pitch following the HBO/New Line announcement.
The new HBO/New Line entity is already viewed as a likely rival to the current two leading Indiewood production and acquisition heavyweights Fox Searchlight and Focus Features. The name for the company is still to be determined, with principles joking Wednesday that they are open to suggestions.
A Quick Deal Fuels Questions and Speculation
By all accounts the HBO/New Line/Newmarket/Fine Line deal emerged quickly, with one informed source telling indieWIRE that it came together in just one week. On a conference call Wednesday afternoon that included HBO head Chris Albrecht, New Line co-head Michael Lynne, and the Newmarket trio, the principles said that numerous other decisions have yet to be announced, including the names of key staff from any of the four affected companies, as well as an initial slate of films.
Even high-level staffers within the companies were, in their own words, shocked at the news that broke publicly via a Variety.com alert on Wednesday afternoon, just before a telephone press conference about the deal. A quick story posted on the trade site contained a variety of speculation that was immediately referenced by principles at the start of the conference call. The Variety online report was quickly shortened and its speculation removed.
Buzz surrounding the deal included word that HBO Films was especially concerned about the joint releases of "Maria Full of Grace," "Elephant," and "American Splendor" by the partnership formed between HBO Films and Fine Line Features two years ago to distribute select HBO titles in theaters. HBO Films head Colin Callender sought to squash such rumors at the start of Wednesday's call, saying the deal grew from discussions that he was having with Michael Lynne regarding ancillary distribution of projects.
"There was no clash between HBO and Fine Line," Callender reinforced during the call, "The success of 'Maria Full of Grace' is a testament to that." The film's star Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for an Oscar for her leading role in the movie.
Staffing Yet to Be Announced
The various principles on Wednesday's conference reiterated that no decisions have been made about staffing the new venture, indicating that the group will include members of the Newmarket and Fine Line teams. HBO Films' Dennis O'Connor is eyed as one potential player, given his role as the key executive in place as part of the existing Fine Line/HBO Films relationship. Newmarket Film's current team of about two dozen, including key Berney deputies Rob Schwartz and Bill Thompson, are expected to remain on board when the new staff begin moving into the venture's office space. One well-placed insider offered that Newmarket Films business would wrap by tomorrow (Friday), with the new HBO/New Line venture up and running officially on Monday.
"I definitely think there is an opportunity for all of us to be working together," explained Fine Line's EVP of marketing Marian Koltai-Levine, in a conversation with indieWIRE minutes after the announcement, "I am certainly quite excited and optimistic about it." Koltai-Levine assumed leadership at Fine Line when former head Mark Ordesky took a post at New Line after shepherding the successful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the division was re-shaped as a specialty marketing arm. But since Ordesky's exit from the Fine Line side, the shingle has been without a figurehead. With a staff of about 8, the unit recently hired Greg Forston as SVP of distribution. Forston joined Fine Line from IFC Films, where he at one point worked with Berney. Other lead execs include SVP of acquisitions and production, Guy Stodel.
Wednesday evening, during an IFC Films party in snowy Manhattan for the company's upcoming release of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," numerous insiders compared notes and speculated about a variety of scenarios. At the party, held at Diane von Furstenberg's fashionable loft, guests gathered in small groups to throw out names and share speculation about how the whole situation might play out.
Release Slate Unclear
Other key questions surround the number of films that will be released by the new HBO/New Line company. One member of Wednesday's call clarified that the "assumption is that (it will be) more product than either Fine Line or Newmarket itself released last year." The group added that HBO and New Line will jointly finance some films that would be distributed by the new venture, but no clear numbers or budget ranges were offered. The company will also acquire new movies and handle releases for some New Line projects and HBO Films' productions.
Upcoming Fine Line releases include two films set to hit NY and LA theaters on the same date, April 29th, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's basketball doc, "The Year of the Yao" (opening in Houston with an early run on April 15th) and Lucrecia Martel's 2004 Cannes competition entry, "The Holy Girl." While those films are still expected to be released under the Fine Line label, the anticipated summer release of the Gus Van Sant grunge rocker project "Last Days" is seen as a likely early release for the new HBO/New Line entity.
Upcoming Newmarket Films releases are scheduled to include Lukas Moodysson's "A Hole in My Heart," Arie Posin's "The Chumscrubber," Don Argott's doc "Rock School," Natasha Arthy's Dogme film, "Old, New, Borrowed and Blue," and Annette K. Olesen's "In Your Hands." While its not yet clear which Newmarket films will be a part of the new company slate, word is that Berney is taking the films with him to the new company. Meanwhile, Newmarket's remaining partners made it clear that they are not out of the film releasing business.
"Newmarket will continue to be an independent distributor and independent producer of films," emphasized Ball and Tyrer of Newmarket, in comments that fueled curiosity within insider circles. "We will continue to release sophisticated fare, truly independent fare."
Bob Berney started his career in film in the early 1980's, programming art films in Texas, later switching to distribution. He worked as a consultant on a number of projects, then joining IFC Films when it was formed in 2002, before partnering with Ball and Tyrer to launch Newmarket Films in the summer of 2002. Berney's successful releases at the various companies have included "The Passion of the Christ," "Whale Rider," "Monster," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" "Memento," and "Real Women Have Curves," while recent box office disappointments at Newmarket Films have included "Silver City," "P.S." and "The Woodsman."
Fine Line Features was essentially jumpstarted with Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan," an IFFM film in 1989 that later went to Sundance in 1990. New Line Cinema tapped Ira Deutchman to shepherd the release and later offered him a job running a new specialty division aimed at embracing U.S. indies. Fine Line Features was officially launched in December of 1990; its earliest hit was Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" which made about $6 million.