As part of the Chicago International Film Festival’s new Industry Days series, which ran from October 22-25, programmer Anthony Kaufman moderated a Q&A with Michael Barker, the co-founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. Since founding Orion Classics in 1983 and Sony Pictures in 1992, Barker and his cohort Tom Bernard have been responsible for producing and/or distributing some of the best independent and foreign films of the past three decades.
In the midst of these rapidly evolving times where film distribution and viewing is undergoing radical changes, Kaufman and Baker sat down to check the pulse of this particular sector of the industry, outside of the box office machine of the major studios, while also reflecting on the history of Sony Pictures Classics (SPC).
Working with Truffaut and Kurosawa
Barker reflected on what established his and Bernard’s place in the industry. “It was Francois Truffaut and ‘The Last Metro.’ We released that and that earned us an instant reputation,” said Barker. “Then it was Akira Kurosawa who really changed our lives. Serge Silberman is responsible for making ‘Ran’ happen, and I had met with him in Japan. A year later, at the age of 78, Mr. Kurosawa really wanted to promote the film in the U.S. He was not happy with the Japanese industry, they hadn’t helped him and he had to go to other sources. We traveled the country with him. He had gone through a depression and wanted to be surrounded by young people. His doctor told him he couldn’t drink anymore, so we had to drink for him. I don’t think I I’ll have Jack Daniels ever again.”
Supporting one of the greatest living filmmakers in a time-of-need immediately distinguished Barker and Bernard. Through the venture, they met movie legends like John Huston, Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli. “They treated us royally, it was amazing,” said Barker.
Explaining the SPC model, Barker explained that the company is “a different business from the mainstream. You can’t open on 1,000 screens, you can grow into 1,000 screens. These films require time in the set-up, how they’re released,” he said. “The ultimate goal is that films have an afterlife, that they are remembered 10, 20, 30 years later. Those movies make more money over a longer period of time rather than those that aim to just win the weekend. We want them to be remembered after we’re gone.”
SPC is highly selective in terms of quality and is committed to the idea of film as an art form. “We firmly believe in the auteur theory,” said Barker. “We believe in sticking with a director who we think will deliver. If you’re good at assessing that talent you have a better shot at some sort of consistent success over time.”
Though SPC is perhaps best known as a distributor of independent films, the company also produces films.
“When we’re involved in a project from the beginning of production, we give the filmmaker final cut,” Barker explained. “But as Francis Ford Coppola once told me, ‘if you give final cut, 90% of the time the director is going to want to please you more,’ and that has turned out to be true. They’re going to ask for your advice anyway.”
Picking the right films
Kaufman asked about how unusual films like Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” attracted SPC’s attention. Neither film is an obvious commercial hit and yet both were very successful for SPC.
“It comes from personal interest. I went to the University of Texas, and heard about a midnight rough cut screening of ‘Slacker’ in Austin, so I went to it,” explained Barker. “With ‘Crumb,’ Tom was a loyal card carrying Robert Crumb fan who knew every detail about his life. It was the same with ‘Searching for Sugar Man,’ which we bought without having seen it. Tom already knew the whole story.”
With documentaries, picking which films to release can be a bit tricky. “It’s about the subject, making sure it’s something people want to know more about, and making sure that it’s the seminal movie on that subject,” said Barker. “For example, every time there’s a downturn in the market, we know more DVDs of ‘Inside Job’ will sell. Errol Morris’ ‘The Fog of War’ is the seminal movie and that sort of leader.”
“It’s more competitive than I’ve ever seen,” said Barker. “There are so many movies to compete against.”
Piracy is a real issue. “It’s stealing, and it’s taking so much revenue,” said Barker who, nonetheless, seems optimistic about the future of SPC in spite of a decline in theatrical and home video sales. SPC’s core audience still goes to the movies, and as the business changes shape, Barker and co. are going with the flow, exploring “every stream of revenue that comes in,” whether that’s through airlines, VOD and issuing their backlog of classics on Blu-Ray.
Although the theatrical business is no longer the source of revenue it once was, it’s still healthy, said Barker, especially when it comes to the core SPC audience. “[Theatrical] is still important, older audiences, gay audiences, Jewish audiences—they’re still going to the movies. And DVDs have helped us because it has given audiences more access over the years and made them more sophisticated as result. Independent and foreign films do better as a result,” he said.