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Savvy kings of the art house

September 20, 2005|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Toronto — TILDA SWINTON has a mischievous gleam in her eye when she spots Michael Barker backstage at the grand old Elgin Theatre, where her new film, "Thumbsucker," was making its debut during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Looking elegant in black tuxedo jacket and pants, the actress glides over to Barker, who runs Sony Pictures Classics with his longtime partner, Tom Bernard. Waiting until she is standing right in front of him, Swinton flashes open her jacket, revealing a purple "Thumbsucker" T-shirt, the same shirt Barker is wearing.

"Great minds think alike," she says with delight, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

Like innumerable other actors and filmmakers, Swinton is fond of Barker and Bernard because the veteran Sony Classics team takes risks on films no one else wants. Beloved by their talent for their passion for film, loathed by their competitors for their combative style, Barker, 51, and Bernard, 53, are two of the last true believers in presenting art-house cinema for movie lovers.

In an era when many studio specialty divisions have shifted their emphasis to youth-oriented comedies or genre thrillers, Sony Classics has made eight films with Pedro Almodovar, nine with Zhang Yimou, most recently the eye-popping "House of Flying Daggers." The two men, who'll celebrate their 15th year running the company in December, have won Oscars with Merchant & Ivory, Errol Morris and Ang Lee, who made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with them. In the last two years alone, they've released such exotica as the enchanting documentary "Winged Migration," the sublime "The Triplets of Belleville" and the hilarious "Kung Fu Hustle," one of the year's surprise hits. They had eight films in Toronto, including "L'Enfant," a Belgian drama that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes; "Why We Fight," a riveting documentary about the American war machine; and "Capote," which should put Sony Classics in the Oscar hunt this fall, thanks to a bravura performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Swinton has clearly not forgotten it was Sony Classics that backed "Orlando," the film that helped launch her career. In fact, she starts to nag Barker about re-releasing the film on DVD before taking the stage with the rest of the "Thumbsucker" cast. After Barker whispers last-second advice to Mike Mills, the film's nervous director, he and Bernard retreat to the back of the theater to watch the film. After pacing nervously for a few minutes, Barker grabs my arm and pulls me into an elevator, which takes us high above the theater.

"You're not gonna believe what you're about to see," he says gleefully in his Texas twang. He's not exaggerating. Above the Elgin, like a second layer on a wedding cake, is a whole other theater, a 1914 vaudeville house called the Winter Garden that was restored in 1989 after being walled up for years. For anyone who loves movies, seeing this jewel of a theater, with its support pillars disguised as tree trunks and autumn leaves hanging from its balcony and the ceiling, is like stumbling onto a hidden tomb of a great pharaoh. And yet in all the years I've been coming to this festival, Barker is the only person who's bothered to tell me about it.

"Isn't it amazing?" he says, prowling around the balcony. "When we had 'Cyrano de Bergerac' at the festival, I took Gerard Depardieu up here. He couldn't believe his eyes. I mean, this is where 'Midsummer Night's Dream' should play year-round."

It's easy to see why Barker has a soft spot for this marvelous old theater. In many ways, Sony Pictures Classics is a throwback itself, the last of the old-fashioned studio art-house divisions. While its competitors are eagerly emulating Fox Searchlight, which hit pay dirt by blending critical successes like "Sideways" with youth-culture films like "Napoleon Dynamite," Sony Classics has largely stuck to the same model it had when Barker and Bernard started the company with Marci Bloom in late 1991. (Barker and Bernard's partnership goes back to the '80s at Orion Classics and United Artists Classics.) If Searchlight is wooing the audience that watches "The Daily Show," Sony Classics is aiming for the readers of the New Yorker.

Although they are famously tight with a dollar, Barker and Bernard have an artistic credibility that's just as important in the indie world as deep pockets. "When they bought my film I loved the idea that my poster would be next to posters of movies by Zhang Yimou and Almodovar and other great filmmakers they've worked with," says director Phil Morrison, whose recent film, "Junebug," is distributed by Sony Classics. "What really impressed me was that one of my friends went to a Max Ophuls retrospective at Lincoln Center -- and Michael Barker was there every day. When your distributor is doing that, you know it's not just a job. They really love movies."

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