When Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films, called Keisha Castle-Hughes at 3 a.m. Wednesday New Zealand time to tell the 13-year-old star of "Whale Rider" that she had been nominated for best actress, he could only get her mother on the phone. And when her mother woke the thespian up to tell her the news, she got an earful.
"She said, 'Get out of here. I'm a teenager. I'll be happy when I wake up,' " Berney recalls.
Castle-Hughes' nomination isn't the only kudo for the young indie distributor. Charlize Theron is considered the front-runner to win best actress for her transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Newmarket's "Monster."
Berney is fast becoming the man with the magic touch for turning films too hot, controversial or simply unexpected into box office gold.
This year, "Whale Rider," the tale of a young Maori girl who yearns to be the next tribal leader, has already taken in $21 million at the box office (Newmarket paid about $1 million for the movie), and Berney is confident that "Monster," which will go into wide release within the next few weeks, will earn more than that, bolstered by the Academy Award nomination.
He says the nominations represent a triumph of "word of mouth. That's the key to both of the films. You can't make it happen. People have to really respond to the films."
" 'Whale Rider' was perceived by many people to be a small foreign film. When we saw it at [the] Toronto [film festival], the whole audience ... gave it a standing ovation. We saw that this thing had a connection to people."
In a time when almost every "independent" is a tiny arm of a large multinational, Newmarket is one of the few true stand-alone companies. Originally a production company and financing entity, it became a distributor when every studio passed on releasing its "Memento." Released in 2000, three years before Berney joined Newmarket, the thriller-in-reverse went on to gross $25 million.
Berney has specialized in art films with crossover appeal. During his tenure at IFC Films, he presided over the release of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which grossed $13 million, and the mother lode of all indie films, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which grossed $241 million.
Most of these films were ignored by almost all the other distributors. "When you're independent, you can't compete with the studios or the studio divisions. You can't out-buy them or outbid them. The films we really believe in are the ones that people are looking over."
Berney's biggest challenge comes next month, when his company helps with the release of Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ," about Jesus' last 12 hours on Earth. The film has been lambasted by several Jewish leaders as being anti-Semitic, although Berney says, "it's not meant to be anti-Semitic in any way. Some people might take it wrong if they're not really familiar with the Bible."