Emmanuelle Riva, center, joins Tom Barnard, left, and Michael Barker at… (Dimitrios Kambouris / WireImage…)
When "Amour" received Academy Award nominations for foreign-language film and best picture, many noted that it was the first time a movie had pulled off that feat since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000.
But director Michael Haneke's tale of love amid the decline of old age set a record perhaps even more impressive: Playing in just three U.S. theaters at the time of the Oscar nods, it had the lowest domestic gross of any movie in modern history nominated for best picture: just $368,000.
In other words, Sony Pictures Classics managed to land five nominations — including nods for director and original screenplay for Haneke, and a lead actress nomination for 85-year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva — for a film that virtually no one had yet seen.
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"Amour" has already racked up a slew of other awards, including the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, best picture prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the foreign-language film Golden Globe.
In a business increasingly driven by sequels and Spandex, Sony Pictures Classics presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard remain a proud anomaly. The New York-based executives run the most indie of Hollywood's indie labels, with a lineup that mixes international imports, documentaries and such offbeat picks as cult favorite action film "The Raid: Redemption" and Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."
Barker and Bernard spoke to The Envelope about the dual challenges of turning "Amour" into a commercial hit and keeping it competitive in the Academy Awards race.
Do you consider it remarkable that "Amour" received so much Oscar attention despite having grossed less than $1 million?
Bernard: This was the plan since we made the movie, from the script stage. This is a movie that without the award power would probably not get the attention of the audience, because it needed that spotlight. The fact is that everything we hoped for has happened so far for the movie. And we have noticed the box office jumped by leaps and bounds as soon as it happened. I think you're going to see this movie have, for a French-language movie, a box office number that will really astound everybody
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Given that it played in only three theaters starting on Dec. 21, nearly everyone who voted for it must have seen it on screeners. Did you send it out before your theatrical release?
Barker: We sent the screener in November.... When Tom and I saw the response in Cannes and then talked to directors who said, "Wow, this is Michael Haneke at the peak of his form, just as Ingmar Bergman was at the peak of his form in 'Cries and Whispers,'" that's the first moment that I thought to myself, "Wow, 'Cries and Whispers' was nominated for best picture next to 'The Godfather.'"
I really think that many directors, actors and writers put it as their first or second choice.
Do you think your lead actors (Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) were well enough known in the industry to garner nominations? Were you surprised that she did and he didn't?
Barker: I have run into so many actors who basically said that it's too bad the actor category is packed full of people because they were so sure Jean would be in there.
Because Emmanuelle is older and fragile, we did bring her to New York to accept [National Board of Review] awards on behalf of Michael. She had never been to America before. She asked us to get her a car so she could see the Statue of Liberty from Manhattan.
Bernard: She was so thrilled. She felt she got a warmer reception in New York than she had in France.
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And will she be in Los Angeles for the Oscars?
Barker: Yes, she's coming. In fact, when she got the nomination, she said the ceremony is on her birthday. She's going to spend it in Hollywood.
This is not just a foreign film but one that deals with the very difficult topic of the end of life. How wide can you take it, how do you market it and what role do the nominations play?
Barker: We will be expanding it wider every week. By Feb. 15, it will be probably the broadest. It could be very easily 600 [screens]. On a foreign-language film, that very rarely happens. But for a film like this, it's not really about the screen count. It's about keeping those screens so word of mouth can kick in. The worst thing you can do on a movie like this is go too wide too fast.
Bernard: We are marketing the celebration and the director and the awards — the amount of accolades it has won. People are taking notice, and thank God for critics. This is a movie that critics really have had a big effect on.
Barker: We don't look at them like they're foreign films. We look at them like they're great independent films. Tom is the guy who taught me this. It's irrelevant that the film is foreign if it's nominated for best picture, director, actress and screenplay. It's not in some kind of ghetto like a lot of people feel foreign films are.
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