While the average moviegoer is rarely conscious of the intricacies of film distribution, distributors are especially crucial to making or breaking subtitled foreign movies, American independent features, and documentaries.
Founded in 1992 by Michael Barker and Tom Bernard as the “independent” adjunct of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Classics has become perhaps the most influential and active participant in distributing “non-Hollywood” cinema in the United States. During their tenure, Barker and Bernard have distributed, and occasionally invested in, major films by, among others, Mike Leigh, Errol Morris, Ingmar Bergman, Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, and Woody Allen, racking up a total of 140 Academy Award nominations and 31 wins.
The Daily Beast sat down with Barker and Bernard at the Carlton Hotel, the quintessential Cannes hangout, to discuss their festival slate, the prospects for distributing non-fiction films, and the challenges of promoting quality cinema in an uncertain economic and cultural climate.
Will there be any challenges for you in marketing Woody Allen’s new movie, Magic in the Moonlight? And do you think it will do as well as Midnight in Paris?
Michael Barker: I don’t know if anything will do as well as Midnight in Paris. That’s his most successful movie ever. But it will do well. It’s a perfect summer movie.
Why do you think Midnight in Paris did so phenomenally?
Barker: It’s an unusual movie in that it’s a fantasy with no special effects. That’s an amazing accomplishment. It features Owen Wilson, a major star. And it was like a getaway to Paris in the middle of the summer. It was an alternative to the major studio films and it did as well.
Tom Bernard: Woody was surprised. He didn’t think it was going to do that well.
Barker: I think that Woody was also surprised that Blue Jasmine did as well as it did because it was so dark. The fact that it made $35 million is even more impressive than Midnight in Paris because it’s a drama. It was the ultimate comment on the Bernie Madoff case that hadn’t yet been visualized in movies. And people were ready for that.
Bernard: It used to be assumed that Woody Allen wouldn’t do a nickel in Kansas City. Now he makes money all over.
Maybe it doesn’t hurt that his name is often in the news, even though it’s because of an unsavory controversy.
Bernard: No, I think that a whole new generation has discovered Woody Allen that wasn’t familiar with him before.
Barker: I have a 26-year-old daughter who isn’t particularly a movie buff and is just discovering Woody Allen. As Tom says, he’s being discovered by an entirely new demographic.
The trade magazines are unanimous in their consensus that Sony Classics is on a roll. You came here with five films [Whiplash, Mr. Turner, Foxcatcher, Coming Home, and Red Army] on your ’14 slate and, so far, you’ve acquired three more—Saint Laurent, Wild Tales, and Jimmy’s Hall. What is the importance of film festivals in your line of work? Are they crucial?
Bernard: Film festivals sift out stuff that would never make the cut. So if a film is in Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Venice and New York, you know they’ve selected the best films.
Still, there are always a fair number of bad films at festivals.
Bernard: Yes, but they’re still better than the films they rejected. At Sundance, it’s especially true that they weed through films that have no commercial potential and would never get distribution.
Barker: Cannes is probably the most important of all the festivals because you meet people from all over the world and we get so many tips on how to do our job. Today Foxcatcher screened and it’s picking up momentum; the same with the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner. But it also involves meeting with filmmakers and learning about films in the planning stages. Also, when you sit down with producers and sales agents, you’re always talking about the future of filmmaking since everyone is worried about piracy and new platforms. Cannes is a cauldron of all of those discussions in a way that’s true of no other place.
With Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, you’ll be going against another Yves St. Laurent film that the Weinstein Company will be releasing. Is that somewhat analogous to when you acquired Bennett Miller’s Capote and another Capote biopic was in the works?
Barker: This is very different. We got involved with Saint Laurent at an early stage because we wanted to work with Bonello. We liked his previous film very much and we’re always looking for rising new talents—just like when we came here and bought Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. The truth is that Bonello is the future of French cinema. Saint Laurent is really his vision.
Mr. Turner is the second Mike Leigh film after Another Year that you’ve distributed.
Barker: Yes, but we’ve known him for years. He’s wanted to be with us and we’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. But circumstances kept us apart. Who knows how that happens? So when we came together on Another Year, which was actually here in Cannes, we became very close. But he actually started talking about the Turner film about 10 years ago when he was at the New York Film Festival. Because the projected budget was very high, he and his producer found it very difficult to put the money together. We’re very proud of that film because we got involved from the beginning, before anything was shot or he began rehearsals.
Every indication is that it will do very well.
Barker: We certainly hope so. It’s the seminal film on this important British painter. Tom and I were joking that when Amadeus came out, the American public discovered Mozart. So perhaps, on a smaller level, the Mike Leigh film will do the same thing for J.M.W. Turner.
And Foxcatcher is another film you’ve been tracking for quite a while. The release was held back a while, wasn’t it?
Bernard: Bennett [Miller] is old school; he took a while to finish it. My wife is a film editor; she edited Amadeus. Milos [Forman] would sometimes take a year or a year and a half to edit films. And I think that Bennett’s process is very similar. We’ve seen maybe 10 versions of it and they’ve all been good. But he really honed it down.
Steve Carell is brilliant in playing against type.
Barker: We showed the film to [Cannes director] Thierry Frémaux, who was in L.A. We always thought that this was the film that could get Bennett discovered as a director of international stature. Capote and Moneyball were great, but we thought this could be his breakout film. We didn’t say anything to Thierry and he didn’t know that Steve Carell played Du Pont until after the movie was over! He was, like, “Holy Mackerel!”
Bernard: There was some laughter during the evening screening. People probably just thought that Steve Carell would be slightly funny. There was some inappropriate humor.
Barker: What hit home when I saw it here (and Tom and I have seen many versions of the film) is what a director’s movie it is. The three central performances—Carell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum—are so tight. And a lot of it has to do with the way it’s edited. These are the performances of their careers.
Documentaries have become an important part of Sony Classics’ agenda. And at least since Roger and Me, it’s become much more feasible to distribute documentaries to a general audience. Your forthcoming release, Red Army, on Soviet hockey, also works as a gripping political and human narrative.
Barker: It’s true. We financed The Fog of War and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and brought both of them here. Since we brought those films, we knew that Red Army could work in Cannes since there’s an important slot for documentaries. They have to be fresh, well-made, and politically relevant. And Red Army met all of those criteria.
But documentaries are almost never in the Cannes competition. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Palme d’or, is of course an exception.
Barker: That’s OK. When we first started coming to Cannes, there weren’t any documentaries.
Bernard: The docs have worked for some years now—ever since that reality show you’re wife wanted to get on?
Bernard: Since people have this appetite for reality TV—even though it’s insane what’s on television—they’re more receptive to documentaries.
Barker: When reality TV became popular, the public began thinking of documentaries as entertainment.
Even though reality TV often has little to do with reality.
Barker: Yeah, I know. But a combination of reality TV and Michael Moore becoming a movie star made documentaries more likely to seem like something you’d see on a Saturday night.
Bernard: Also, the new technology has made making documentaries a lot more feasible. It was more difficult with celluloid. And the way archival footage can be stored electronically has made it all much easier. Malik [Bendjelloul] made a lot of Searching for Sugar Man on his phone.
Barker: Also, the Sundance Film Festival has proved key to exposing people to so many quality documentaries. You didn’t have that platform before. In addition, the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences] has expanded their definition of what they define as a documentary. An animated film like Waltz with Bashir now qualifies. When Errol Morris made The Thin Blue Line, I remember that many members of the Academy’s committee said that doesn’t qualify because he used slow motion in a scene when a milkshake was thrown out a window.
What’s your reaction to Malik Bendjelloul’s unexpected suicide?
Barker: It’s devastating. He was a sweet, sweet guy. And it’s also devastating because he seemed like such a positive guy.
Bernard: And he wasn’t a worldly guy. He was fine with sleeping on people’s couches. He didn’t want to become a documentary machine like Alex Gibney; he just wanted another good story like Sugar Man.
Did you buy Sugar Man at Sundance?
Barker: We actually pre-bought it before Sundance.
Bernard: We read about it and thought: “This is going to be good.”
Barker: We liked the story and Tom actually knew the story. We made an offer on it without even seeing the movie because we thought the story was great. And the producers of that film had a very good track record of producing interesting documentaries. We had seen some footage that Malik had shot and that was good enough for us.
Bernard: They were so freaked out that we had bought the movie without having seen it that they made us watch it.
Barker: That year was so great because The Gatekeepers came along and the director, Dror Moreh, was inspired to do it by The Fog of War. When we saw the footage, we knew that we had to be involved.
Bernard: Anyway, movies come along in different ways. Some of the guys I play hockey with were in touch with Gabe Polsky, the director of Red Army, and they said, “Show it to him. He plays hockey.” It was just a phone call out of the blue.
The appealing thing about Red Army is that you don’t have to know anything about hockey to appreciate the film’s political and human dimensions.
Barker: Yes, unlike Tom, I don’t know anything about hockey. But the film really captures what Russia and the Russian character is like today in the Putin era.
Bernard: Yeah, I had my personal bias, but Michael loved it. And it’s like Sugar Man. This guy Gabe has some very strong-willed Russian parents. He had a Russian coach when he was playing hockey and studied at Yale. He put the story together and there’s probably no one else who could have told it from that perspective.
In an interview Tom recently gave to Anne Thompson, he reiterated that, contrary to what some people believe, American audiences are more receptive than ever to subtitled films.
Barker: Here’s the deal: Really tiny foreign films have it harder than ever. But you can also go farther with a foreign film than you ever could before. We made over $7 million with A Separation and The Secret in Their Eyes. We’re about to go over $4 million with The Lunchbox. If a foreign film can capture the zeitgeist, it can go farther than it ever could before. It’s those smaller movies on the margins that have a harder time. Since there isn’t that much to be made from television rights, it’s old-fashioned in that a theatrical release is still always the driver with a foreign release.
Bernard: Theaters like Regal and other chains all have specialized marketing departments for foreign films.
Barker: When a film like The Lives of Others, about the East German Stasi, makes $13 million, that’s the highest-grossing German film America has seen. It says something.
Bernard: With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, people finally became accustomed to reading subtitles. Maybe it had something to do with words scrolling on television or people using instant messaging. It’s not an issue anymore; it’s just the movie itself that’s important. There are at least 30 companies distributing foreign films now. Maybe they’re not all distributing them theatrically, but you can find them if you want them—at least on DVD.
What, in your view, makes a quintessential Sony Classics release?
Barker: I don’t know, but the films we have at Cannes this year reflect the whole range of the Sony Classics slate. All we’re missing is an animated film. We have the masters represented with Mike Leigh and Zhang Yimou. We have Bennett Miller finally on an international stage. We have Damien Chazelle at the beginning of his career with Whiplash. We have Red Army, a great documentary. And with Wild Tales, we have the birth of a new Buňuel with Damian Szifron. And there’s the fact that we get involved with films at different stages. With Mike Leigh, it’s before he’s even written the script while, with Bonello, it’s when he’s finished. With the Bonello and the Argentine film, we actually bought the films before Cannes although it didn’t come out until recently because we were in negotiations. We actually made an offer on the Bonello without seeing it because we loved the script and the actor. And when Pedro Almodovar showed us the Argentine film, we loved it because it was so fresh.
How arduous are those negotiations?
Barker: They’re actually not as difficult as they used to be because we’ve been around for a long time. They know us and we know them. I think it helps that people feel confident that we’re not going away.
What role do you think critics should play in shaping debates around films?
Barker: I really worry about these critics losing their jobs and not having that forum since critics are so important to these films. One of the reasons I love The New York Times is that they give those critics the space to say what needs to be said. There are so many critics online that it’s hard to determine which ones are influential and which aren’t. And that’s kind of scary.
Bernard: To me, one of the problems is that these critics don’t have a home anymore. So you may have a guy who works in Phoenix for Gannett. Then, all of a sudden, his reviews are in Houston or he’s in Denver. The audience in a town used to develop a relationship with a critic. If a critic liked, or disliked a film, you’d know if you were going to like it. That sort of disappeared. People go online or consult Rotten Tomatoes. But they don’t have that personal relationship with local critics the way Jay Carr used to in Boston, or Vincent Canby certainly had in New York.