The tragedy was in plain sight, but nobody thought it would hit this hard. As word spread today that Warner Bros. planned to close its specialty divisions Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures, shifting all projects currently in development to the larger studio and its recently absorbed subdivision New Line, a mournful tone took hold of the independent film industry. “It is a sad day when any film company, large or small, bites the dust,” said President of THINKfilm Mark Urman. “One had heard and one had even considered that this was a possible scenario. It’s still surprising when you see it in print.”
The announcement reverberated throughout the day, as it became clear that all Picturehouse and Warner Independent employees — seventy-four combined — just lost their jobs. “This was a strategic decision that came after a lot of careful consideration,” said Alan Horn, Warner Bros.’ president and CEO, in an e-mail to indieWIRE. “We have been thinking about this for a couple of months, since Time Warner put New Line under our company.” Following in step with a statement he issued earlier in the day, Horn argued that the decision resulted from a need to consolidate their interests. “To have three theatrical development, marketing, production and distribution arms, essentially serving the same function and even competing with one another on various levels does not make economic sense,” Horn said. “That’s a bottom line reality.”
Sometimes, reality bites. Of the forty-three employees at Picturehouse’s New York-based headquarters, many will remain involved with the larger company through September to handle Picturehouse’s three upcoming releases: “The Women,” “Kit Kittredge” and “Mongol.” A Warner Independent spokesperson declined to comment on its employees’ plans, but while the demise was less expected, it was ultimately also less a cause for communal outcry. Although Warner Independent president Polly Cohen came from a studio background with the company, arriving to the independent distribution business from the oustide in, much beloved Picturehouse president Bob Berney landed there after playing an incessantly consequential role in the field for many years. As Head of Distribution and Marketing for IFC when “Y Tu Mama Tambien” became a hit and the pioneer behind the massive success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Berney proved again and again that people with his kind of job had a purpose. “Everyone in the industry was expecting something to happen, but I don’t think anybody expected them to let go of an asset like Bob Berney,” said producer Jason Kliot.
Alongside displeasure over Berney’s fate, many in the industry contested a line in the studio’s statement pledging their allegiance to “the sprit of independent filmmaking.” The move implied anything but. “It just seems to contradict the statement Horn is making,” Kliot offered. Pressed on the issue via e-mail, Horn simply added, “We remain very committed to making and acquiring films of all shapes and sizes. For our company, we do not believe we need to have multiple infrastructures duplicating their efforts.” He rejected the possibility that the studio had little or no interest in specialty films. “This should in no way be a reflection of our commitment to making smaller pictures,” he said. “I, myself, am a huge film of independent film and see them frequently.”
Berney’s plans for the immediate future remain unclear, but he will attend the Cannes Film Festival in the coming weeks, and Warner Bros. itself has pledged to make its presence at those places felt. “We’ll be at the festivals,” Horn said. “We will be looking to acquire films. If we like a picture, we’re going to buy it. If we like a pitch, we’ll develop and produce it.”
Warner Independent was formed in 2003, launched by former Miramax president Mark Gill. Its hits include the Academy Award-winning “March of the Penguins” and Michel Gondry‘s “The Science of Sleep,” and it plans to release Alan Ball’s “Towelhead” later this year. Picturehouse, meanwhile, was formed by Warner Brothers’ units New Line and HBO in the wake of the closure of Fine Line Features in 2005. Berney was announced as head of the operation at Cannes three years ago.
Just as Cannes has been deemed a glitzy affair disguised as a haven for art films, so too goes the complaint about certain studios kneeling down to the independent realm. Drawing from his experience at Columbia’s classics division, Triumph Films, in the early 1980s, Urman noted a clandestine agenda at various specialty divisions that came later. “You get a cycle of a lot of specialty, prestige companies so that studio heads making big dumb and noisy movies can still go to the Oscars. Then they realize they don’t need to go to the Oscars,” he explained. “When Hollywood gets threatened by new technologies, they make their movies bigger and noisier, and they end up dumber.”
Despite Horn’s claims to the contrary, the closure does seem to suggest that Warner Bros.’ has turned away from the independent business. With the upcoming release of “The Dark Knight,” a highly anticipated franchise film undoubtedly set to make profit, the company doesn’t appear all that interested in art houses. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one high profile executive suggested that studio involvement in independent distribution has always added pressure to a comparatively frail industry. Picturehouse’s surprise success for the French film “La Vie en Rose” hardly matters, the source said, when considering the relative smallness of the movie, which was recently purchased by the Sundance Channel.
More generally, many distributors noted that last year’s common argument that the marketplace was too crowded no longer holds any weight. Instead, the specific issue with Warner Bros. seems to revolve around indifference to non-studio films: Despite its various attempts to take a bite out of the independent game, most of Warner Bros.’ successes happened with its larger productions. Two years ago, when “The Departed” won the Best Picture Oscar, the studio was in a good place. Since then, it has continued to release most of its notably serious, awards-worthy titles on a similarly large scale. Of late, this has included “Letters from Iwo Jima” and this year’s Best Picture nominee, “Michael Clayton” (whereas fellow nominees “Juno” and “There Will Be Blood” came from independent shingles Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage, respectively).
Whether or not the studio can justify its decision, it’s clear that several assumptions have been made, chief among them the notion that New Line is the only subdivision Warner Bros. needs. The authenticity of the motives remain debatable. “It doesn’t surprise me, in this day and age, that the big companies make their decisions in a different way,” said Urman. “They’re made on the basis of profit. If that weren’t the case, there would be no independent business.” He stressed an essential balance between the two extremes of the industry. “We need them to be who they are, so we can be who we are,” he said in reference to the studios. “They create the need for us. When they try to do what we do, they threaten us, and they probably don’t do it as well as we do.”