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Prudence is their specialty

September 15, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Every year the showbiz press views film festivals by the same horse-race standards, judging the winners either by which film company bought the hottest movie or which movie sold for the most money.

But having spent a bunch of time at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival with Sony Pictures Classics co-chiefs Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, I realized that they operate under a very different model than everyone else. If you want to gauge how their festival went, you have to wait till long after it's over. Barker and Bernard don't get into bidding wars -- they invariably buy movies after the festival has ended, when the hot air has gone out of the balloon and the buying price has drifted back down to Earth.

Call them smart shoppers. Two years ago, they bought their favorite Toronto movie, Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book," weeks after the festival finished. Their highest-profile acquisition at Cannes this spring, Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," came in late July, long after the festival closed up shop. Sony Classics had a big presence in Toronto this year, but as distributors, not as buyers. They had 10 films in the festival, but as buyers, they have kept their wallets shut. Everyone seems to know which movies they like, among them Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" and "Soul Power," an exuberant documentary about the Zaire '74 music festival, but they are clearly in no rush to close a deal.

Bernard and Barker spent much of their time in Toronto promoting the wide array of films they'll be releasing over the next nine months, which include Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," Wong Kar Wai's rarely seen "Ashes of Time Redux," Philippe Claudel's "I've Loved You So Long" (starring Kristin Scott Thomas), Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" and Christophe Barratier's "Paris 36."

In recent years, Barker and Bernard's specialty division rivals have dismissed the longtime Sony chiefs as old farts, wedded to an outdated art-house model, noting that their box-office numbers have been in steady decline. But the duo, who'll celebrate their 18th year working together in January, may have the last laugh. They are still here while many of their specialty division detractors are out of business or undergoing major downsizing. Sony Classics' films don't do the kind of business they used to do. Their high-water mark was 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which grossed $128 million in the U.S. alone. The division's biggest hit over the last year was "The Counterfeiters," which won an Oscar and took in $5.5 million domestically. Still, the company turns a steady profit each year. So how did they manage to avoid the collapse that capsized so many rivals?

"We're just more disciplined," says Bernard. "While others companies were embracing a gold-rush mentality and spending like crazy, we've stayed the same size as ever. We have 25 staffers -- that's the whole company. So we can market our movies more inexpensively than everyone else. We want to win the war, not the opening weekend."

Their fierce desire to win has left its share of bruised feelings -- competitors say Barker and Bernard have sharp elbows. (Bernard, who plays in a celebrity hockey game in Toronto each year, has the husky build of a veteran defenseman.) The other day at the festival, Bernard came over to say hello while I was talking with Fox Searchlight's Steve Gilula -- it was pretty clear from the way the men glared at each other that no love was lost between them.

What matters most to the Sony Classics team is how snugly they fit into the bigger Sony system. "The mantra at Sony has always been about quality," says Barker. "That's the way they've looked at their hardware product line, and that's the way they look at us. Everyone there wanted us to be a prestige brand that was in business for the long haul."

When the Sony Classics team eye their competitors, they sound genuinely baffled by the short-term decision-making at other studios. It's hard to believe, they say, that Warner Bros. shut down Warner Independent Pictures barely four years after starting it up; likewise with Paramount Vantage, which recently axed most of its staff roughly 2 1/2 years after the company was launched.

Sony Classics has had its failures too, most recently David Mamet's "Redbelt," which it released on nearly 1,400 screens but which made only $2.3 million in its U.S. release. The Mamet camp was furious, believing Sony had used the film's theatrical release as a glorified trailer for an upcoming DVD release.

Bernard says the company spent $10 million marketing the picture, far more than it normally spends on its releases. "We weren't thrilled by the movie's performance either," says Bernard. "The ultimate-fighting crowd didn't think it had enough action, and the reviews weren't good enough to attract the art-house audience. So we got caught in the middle."

One thing Sony Classics rarely does is throw good money after bad. If any one expenditure has hurt today's specialty divisions, it's the massive amount of marketing money spent chasing Oscar nominations. Barker and Bernard, on the other hand, are always trying to dream up Oscar economy measures -- one year taking trade ads only every other day, another year saving money by running only black-and-white ads.

For them, it all comes back to exercising discipline, which is why they expect to head home from the festival still holding off on any movie purchases. "You don't see us spending money just to establish our brand," says Barker. "That's the good thing about having been around all these years. People already know who we are."


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