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Their Motto: Think Small

Sony Pictures Classics releases only films its co-chiefs like. (Gasp!)

March 29, 1998|Jack Mathews | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

NEW YORK — If the marketing department at Sony Pictures Classics was to put together a newspaper ad using quotes to promote the company instead of one of its movies, they could do worse than these:

"Those guys love film, they see everything, they have good tastes, and they work like hell for their movies."

--Milos Forman

"They believe in cinema, they fight for their films, and they have a kind of passion that is rare now in our business."

--Ismail Merchant

"I've known these guys for a lot of years, and they certainly hand-release their films. They don't just throw them into a machine with a setup and hope they make money."

--Robert Altman

Three blind calls, three rave reviews. And you'd have to make a lot more calls to get to that first dissenting opinion. These "guys"--Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics--enjoy a unique reputation in the art-house film distribution business. Unique for their longevity, for their high success rate and for their determination to stay small.

"We've always wanted to be in the distribution of specialized movies," says Bernard, 45, whose interests in foreign and independent film, like Barker's, were developed in college while programming film series for the student body. "We've had chances to expand and do more mainstream films, but this is all we've ever wanted to do, and we think we've got the best jobs in the business."

While other small distribution companies have been going public (New Line), going Hollywood (Miramax) or going broke (Cinecom, Vestron), the Barker-Bernard tandem, joined in the late '80s by former publicist Bloom, are content to hand-pick and release only those films they personally like and believe they can navigate to their audience in a market swollen with mainstream movies.

What kind of pictures are we talking about? Right now, Sony Pictures Classics has in release Gary Oldman's critically acclaimed British domestic drama "Nil by Mouth"; Alan Rudolph's offbeat romance "Afterglow," which features the Oscar-nominated performance of Julie Christie; Belgian director Alain Berliner's extraordinary "Ma Vie en Rose," a comedy-fantasy-drama about a 7-year-old boy who thinks he's a girl; John Sayles' Spanish-language film "Men With Guns"; and the Dutch film "Character," winner of the best foreign-language film Oscar.

In the 17 years since Bernard started the classics division at United Artists and brought Barker in from another wing of the studio, they have hand-delivered some of the best high-end movie entertainment in America. Their first acquisition was Francois Truffaut's "The Last Metro," and since then, at UA, Orion and now Sony, the team has handled such classic fare as Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva," Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Lola," Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog," James Ivory's "Howards End" and Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

When you walk into the executive suites at Sony Pictures Classics in the Sony building at Madison Avenue and 55th Street, you're struck by the fact that there are none. The three presidents have offices that, in Hollywood, might belong to purchasing agents. There's a desk, a computer, a pair of chairs for visitors, a hook behind the door for coats. The conference room where Barker, Bernard and Bloom hold their daily meeting is Burger Heaven on Madison.

Sony Pictures Classics is a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, with 25 full-time employees. But it operates as an autonomous, turn-key operation. Barker, Bernard and Bloom, the "Three Bs," pick their own films, make their own deals and develop their own marketing and distribution strategies. The key to their continued success--they claim that 85% of their films have been profitable--was established in that very first deal, with Truffaut.

"Truffaut could have got more money up front from someone else, but he was tired of never seeing any [profits] at the other end," Bernard says. "We made a very simple deal with him, and he ended up making $1.5 million as a producer's share. Then he went around the world saying, 'You ought to go with these people.' It was the best thing that could have happened."

Bernard and Barker ran UA Classics successfully for three years, while the studio's upper management was going through a severe case of post-"Heaven's Gate" stress syndrome. That 1980 Michael Cimino fiasco nearly bankrupted United Artists, and prompted its corporate parent, the TransAmerica Corp., to sell UA to MGM.

In 1983, Barker and Bernard left MGM/UA and, with their friend Donna Gigliotti as an equal partner, set up the classics division for Orion Pictures, the new company founded by the five hot executives who'd left UA a year before it blundered into "Heaven's Gate." Under their leadership, Orion became the class act of Hollywood in the '80s, just as their UA had been the class act of the '70s, and the films brought in for special handling by Barker, Bernard and Gigliotti added even more prestige.

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