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WORD OF MOUTH

Sony Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard take the long view of success

The two longtime buyers for Sony have a head for business, an eye for good independent movies and long-standing relationships with filmmakers.

May 14, 2009|John Horn

CANNES, FRANCE — Generally, the tortoise doesn't beat the hare in Hollywood.

No matter what Aesop's fable suggests, show business winners are deemed to be films like "The Dark Knight," "Iron Man," "Transformers" -- blockbusters that start off at a sprint and never slow down. There's only one small corner for patience in the film world, and you can find it at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year's festival gathering opened Wednesday without many U.S. distributors -- here-today, gone-tomorrow outfits like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures that were done in by either liberal spending, tightfisted ownership or a combination of both.

But one of the most enduring buyers of independent film, Sony Pictures Classics, is back once again on the French Riviera and hungry for action. The tiny movie unit inside the Japanese conglomerate kicked off the festival with two opening-day purchases, snapping up U.S. and Canadian distribution rights to the historical thriller "The White Ribbon" and the love story "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky."

Earlier this month, longtime Sony Pictures Classics heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard extended their contracts with their parent company for an additional four years, cementing Barker and Bernard's partnership of some 30 years (18 of them at Sony). Yet it's not the fidelity of Barker and Bernard's movie marriage that has set them apart; rather, it's their business model, combined with their long-standing relationships with acclaimed filmmakers and producers.

While some distributors of movies made outside the studio system spend more than $10 million releasing a movie and sometimes a nearly equal amount buying films, Barker and Bernard lay out a fraction of that, letting the movie sell itself. If there's a bidding war at a film festival, it's highly unlikely Sony Pictures Classics will be in the middle of it.

"We're not about the opening weekend -- we've never been about that," Barker says. Adds Bernard: "Our goal is if we can integrate films into the culture, they will have a long life in our library."

The kind of money Sony Pictures Classics makes on a given movie is about equal to what Sony Pictures spends on spandex for "Spider-Man." Though last year's Cannes title "Synecdoche, New York" didn't exactly set the art house circuit on fire, the movie did gross more than $3 million -- a decent return considering Sony Pictures Classics didn't pay any money to acquire the film's distribution rights.

And even though "The Class" and "Rachel Getting Married" will yield just a fraction of the returns Fox Searchlight is pocketing with "Slumdog Millionaire," those two Sony Pictures Classics titles will be hugely profitable, given how little Bernard and Barker pay for acquisitions and marketing and how each film won over critics and sophisticated moviegoers.

"You look at a $3-million gross for a foreign-language film and you think, 'There's no way that it's profitable,' " Barker says. "But it is." Adds Bernard: "It's like it's your own hot dog stand. How much are you going to spend versus what you're going to take in?"

There's a fine line between frugality and cheapness, and some filmmakers and vendors who work with Barker and Bernard said the pair's penny-pinching habits can sometimes be on the wrong side of the equation. Directors are encouraged to hire cabs rather than car services, actors are pointed toward commercial aircraft (business, not first class, please) and away from private jets, and advertising agencies and public relations firms know they won't be able to pay for their holiday parties with Sony Pictures Classics' cut-rate retainers.

Yet that very thrift is what keeps them profitable almost every year (Barker and Bernard confess to two money-losing years at Sony) and why even a tiny Sony Pictures Classics foreign-language release such as last year's "I Served the King of England" (domestic box-office gross: $600,000) can manage a small profit, when DVD, pay-TV and airplane sales are thrown in.

"They are cautious, and as frustrating as that can be for a filmmaker, it has allowed them to survive," says Atom Egoyan, the writer-director-producer of last year's Cannes premiere "Adoration," which Sony Pictures Classics opened in limited theatrical release May 8. "What I am really grateful for is that they are still around. They have been able to survive and thrive amid incredible changes and shifts in the independent film world. And they are one of the few companies around that still buys movies of a certain type."

Indeed, it's when Sony Pictures Classics finances more intentionally mainstream fare that it has suffered its biggest disappointments. Writer-director David Mamet's martial arts story "Redbelt" cost Sony Pictures Classics more than $7 million to make and several million to market. But the film was too arty for fight fans and too violent for art audiences, and it grossed just $2.3 million.

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