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A winning feel for the offbeat pays off for indie movie chief

Picturehouse's Bob Berney had a hunch about `Pan's Labyrinth,' putting it on the path to an Oscar nomination.

February 25, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

The road to tonight's Oscars for "Pan's Labyrinth," a nominee for best foreign-language film, can be traced to a meal of fried eggs and truffles at a Madrid restaurant.

On a blazing hot August night, between sips of red wine, director Guillermo del Toro asked studio executive Bob Berney to look at images on a laptop of a giant slime-regurgitating frog and a pale creature-man without eyes.

"As I saw bits and pieces of it, like the frog and everything, it seemed exciting to me," Berney said.

Berney knew he had found something special for Picturehouse, the movie venture he heads for HBO Films and its sister company New Line Cinema. His hunch proved right: The $18-million film about the imaginary world of a girl in fascist Spain is a commercial and critical hit, on track to gross at least $70 million worldwide and boasting six Academy Award nominations.

It's those instincts that have made Berney an important figure in the independent film world. He turned such tough sells as "Memento," "Whale Rider" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" into mainstream hits through clever marketing and a knack for getting them into the right theaters. He was crucial in making Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" a blockbuster and helped guide "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" into one of the most profitable independent runs ever.

"He is like your pediatrician," said director Alfonso Cuaron, who directed "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and produced "Pan's Labyrinth." "He sees your movie like a child that you hand over to him. And then he stays with the kid until he becomes a Nobel Prize winner."

The soft-spoken, unassuming Oklahoman has had an unconventional Hollywood career. Now 53, Berney toiled for years in the guts of the entertainment business -- working as an usher, as a small-time theater owner and as a distribution executive at several second-tier entertainment companies.

His big break did not come until he was well into his 40s, when Newmarket Capital Group, a private-equity outfit, let him distribute and market director Chris Nolan's "Memento," an odd tale about an amnesiac investigating his wife's murder. Working out of the living room of his then-home in Mar Vista, Berney, together with Nolan, and Nolan's brother Jonah, launched a word-of-mouth campaign on the Internet that turned the movie into a $40-million worldwide hit.

From there, Berney became president of distribution at IFC Films, where he worked on "Y Tu Mama" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." For the former, Berney targeted young males by deftly playing up the movie's sexy scenes with ads set to alternative rock in Spanish. But he also marketed it to art-house audiences by selling it as a foreign-language film. It became one of the U.S. market's highest-grossing Spanish-language films, bringing in $14 million.

"He understood exactly what it was and went with it," said director Cuaron.

But it was Gibson's film about Jesus' final hours that showed Berney could play in the big leagues.

When no major studio would touch it, Berney, then a partner at Newmarket Films, stepped in and recommended that "The Passion" be released on 5,200 prints -- a huge number for a religious movie many in Hollywood disparaged as unmarketable to a broad audience. Berney didn't flinch.

"He sees opportunity where others are afraid," Gibson said. "He pulled it off with a quietness that was a good influence. He has a very humble exterior, and he's not prone to highs and lows and outbursts, which is something I admire in someone."

Berney developed his taste in movies at the domed Cooper Theatre in Oklahoma City, a high-end movie house that served European chocolates instead of popcorn. Before each film, an American flag the size of the screen was unfurled and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited. It was there that Berney had a revelation while seeing Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"For the first time watching a movie, I felt like an artist was talking directly to me," said Berney, who was 15 at the time. "I saw that movie at least 10 times."

He studied film history at the University of Texas, then watched even more movies working as an usher and projectionist in a local theater. Before turning 30, Berney and a partner purchased the Inwood Theatre in Dallas and made it a mecca for the city's foreign-film aficionados. Long before today's concept of a cocktail lounge in a movie theater, Berney and his partner served wine and coffee in the lobby.

"I always joke that Bob comes alive in the dark," said his wife, Jeanne, a publicist with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. "He falls really hard for movies."

At New York-based Picturehouse, where he has been president for a year, Berney is charged with buying and making films as well as releasing theatrical movies produced by HBO Films.

That puts him up against such established operations as 20th Century Fox's Fox Searchlight and Universal Pictures' Focus Features, both of which have been successful at finding quality specialized films that have commercial appeal.

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