EXECUTIVE SUITE: Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard and Michael Barker
The Sony Pictures Classics co-founders, who have worked together for 30 years, just weathered another Sundance, where they picked up "Take Shelter" and "The Guard."
Rare is the Hollywood couple that stays together 30 years. Tom Bernard and Michael Barker first paired at United Artists and Orion Classics before co-founding Sony Pictures Classics in 1992. The New York-based specialty arm has never been Sony’s most profitable division, but with scores of Oscar nominations (seven more this year for such films as Animal Kingdom and Inside Job), the duo’s indie outfit has long championed obscure artists and low-budget gems.
Bernard, 59, and Barker, 57—each married with grown kids -- were again active at Sundance, where they picked up the psychological thriller Take Shelter and the Irish comedy The Guard. The key to a long, healthy partnership? Whether it’s Burger Heaven or the Friar’s Club, they still eat lunch together every day.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was your first acquisition and how did that work out?
Bernard: The first one for me was, I was at New Line Cinema right after Jabberwocky, like 1979. There was a concert that Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe used to put on in London. Monty Python was very big at the time, and so Bob Shaye talked to us about it and we went and saw footage of the concert and decided this would be a great buy. So we bought it, we turned the title into Monty Python Meets Beyond the Fringe. It was called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was the concert they had every year, and then we changed the name. It was just a straight concert footage thing. Colleges were really big at the time, and so we packaged it and put it in a few theaters and sold it on the college circuit. Two years later Harvey Weinstein bought the concert away from Bob Shaye, but we had actually put that out first. It was a long time ago.
Barker: Tom and I were together at UA, but the first one that I remember well was when we formed Orion Classics in February of 1983 and we had no movies. We went to Cannes and we couldn’t find a movie to buy. There was a movie called Pauline at the Beach that was screened in the market. It was an Eric Rohmer film. It was already sold to someone, and I remember there was a screening of it at 5 o’clock, and at 4:55 we got a note that the deal had fallen out and was not happening and that if we could get over to this theater in 5 minutes we should check it out. So we went to the theater and it was sold out. We couldn’t get in. So we figured out a way to stand at the back and look over these heads.
Bernard: We fought our way in through these guys, and it was the smelliest room of people I’d ever been in in my life. I mean, it was warm, and it was a lot of French odor.
Barker: And we probably saw a third of the screen throughout the whole movie through all the heads and stuff. We came out and we bought the movie. And that was our first movie at Orion Classics. I’ll never forget that. [laughs] And the thing we learned also is, it’s never good to be in a desperate position. You have to feel like you can get out of the festival without having a movie. That was a really happy ending, but there have been a few times when we felt like we had to have a movie, we bought a movie and we really overstepped our bounds.
THR: Can you put a value on awards and nominations?
Bernard: The one value that you can put on it every time is that it will increase the length of revenues on your picture over time—it’s going to be “a really long tail,” as they say. That picture stands out forever because it was nominated.
Barker: It will always be “an Academy Award winner,” or it will always be “an Academy Award nominee.”
Bernard: When there’s new technology it becomes reissued again out of the pack, it makes the cut, so that’s always valuable. The other stuff depends on the zeitgeist of the moment and what’s going on. If you look at today, what’s going on with the Oscars, they’ve truncated the Oscar season. It used to be that the awards were March 30. Through violations and manipulations of certain companies, they’ve tried to take manipulation out of the Oscars so it’s a much shorter window. So you can’t earn the kind of money you used to earn for two months to pay for your Oscar campaign.
THR: But you’re spending less, too.
Bernard: You’re spending less, but the return is much more. I think half of the best pictures are on DVD now, so people have switched their strategy and they’re now launching their DVDs with the Oscars. That’s a new situation. The old situation—like when we had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—we made a lot of revenue between February 1 and March 30.
Barker: I think you can quantify it, but you really have to look at each picture differently—as foreign or documentary or best picture. You have something like The Illiusionist, which is nominated for best animated picture, like we had The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis in there before. That particular category, it’s of great value an independent film being in that run with the big boys—people notice. “Well, what is that? How did that get in there against Toy Story?” So what happens on a Triplets of Belleville, which got a nomination for the animated feature and best song, we had the composer and his wife do the song on the [Oscar] show. That grossed double—50% of our gross was because of that.
Bernard: What was unique on that one is that the Oscars wanted us to fly Bette Midler in. Because you’re responsible to provide the entertainment for your song. And they wanted us to rent a jet for some suits in Florida—it cost about as much as the movie to get them here. So we just said, We’ll go with the people from Quebec that originally did it. And they stole the show with the song.
Barker: But here’s what you have to understand about taking advantage of the Oscar nomination—you have to be primed in the theaters at that moment. Because there are two aspects to how Oscars increase your revenues. One is long-term—posterity, because it’s always an Oscar winner/Oscar nominee. But the other is to be in the moment in those theaters, because people really want to see what’s going on in the moment, what’s high profile in the moment. For example, they would have made much more money theatrically on Hurt Locker if they’d waited on the DVD until after the nomination, or after the win. But they decided not to do that, probably for financial reasons. Someone told me 5 or 6 of the nominees now are out on DVD. The ones that will really capitalize on the moment in a big way are the ones that are still in the theaters.
Bernard: Well, that’s one side of the coin. We have Jacki Weaver [in Animal Kingdom] coming out on DVD, and we strategically did that because that lifts that picture to an awareness in the DVD marketplace, and we didn’t think we could get the amount of theaters for that one for supporting actress. So we timed it to the DVD release. Jacki Weaver’s done a whole round of press just in the DVD world on this thing—she’s gone to the main stores of the distributors in Sacramento, she’s talked to Costco magazine. People hadn’t been using the talent like that in the indie world to launch their DVD, so we tried to shift our marketing into that world.
Barker: The other thing with Animal Kingdom—it was the same with Junebug and Frozen River—that’s a different scenario than the one that I’ve just painted for you. If you don’t make your mark early, if you don’t send the DVD early, you’re not going to get those people nominated.
THR: It depends on who you’re targeting with the awareness—is it the general audience or is it the industry in terms of nominations.
Barker: But even the general audience, there’s so much competition at Christmas time. How you make Jacki Weaver stand out in that environment, if you’re presenting the film then. Whereas August is the right time, the public’s ready to go to it and to notice it, they’re tired of the big studio pictures. And the critics and the Academy members they’ll notice it, too, because they don’t have 12 DVDs they need to see.
Bernard: And that’s one we bought at Sundance with that in mind, and we said, “We think we have a chance.”
THR: With something like Take Shelter, is part of your calculation, “Well, this likely has a really incredible Michael Shannon performance?”
THR: You had read the script, you knew the nature and tone of it, even though you hadn’t seen it, you think this guy’s killer and he’s already got one nom.
Barker: We had just seen him onstage in New York. This guy’s one of the great actors in America. It’s exactly what our plan was when we saw Junebug here with Amy Adams, when we saw Melissa Leo here in Frozen River, when we saw Jacki Weaver here in Animal Kingdom. And we’ll see what happens, but Michael Shannon is certainly up there in the quality of his performance.
Bernard: You know, people really haven’t targeted Sundance as an Oscar launching pad in a way—I mean, In the Bedroom—if you go back through the past.
THR: You don’t feel like that’s changing the last few years with Precious and An Education?
Bernard: It’s always been that way, but no one really sort of talks about it that way. How many of these acquisitions that kind of look odd—is there an Oscar thing in there maybe that no one’s paid attention to?
THR: You guys have been working together for 30 years. You must at times get sick of each other. You must get in arguments. What’s your method for conflict resolution?
Bernard: I don’t ever really get sick of Michael. The arguments are discussions to get to the solutions of the business of the day. We both have opinions, we’re working towards acquiring pictures and trying to figure out how to sell them. Each of us brings something different to the table on that, so we have to discuss what the merits are, what the merits aren’t. It can get heated in that, but you’re working towards the right business decision. We work together on making ad campaigns, so there’s a lot of discussion there on what’s right and what’s wrong. The same with the trailers. So if there are conflicts, it’s more of a heated reaction to the business of the day, or the business at hand, because it’s different every day. And that’s what makes it exciting. There’s never a day where I’ve dreaded going to the office or say, “Gee, this is monotonous.”
THR: But you guys haven’t built a cage or anything in the office to settle disputes? “Ok, it’s time to go in Thuderdome…”
Barker: We asked the building if they’d put a window in the wall between our offices so we could communicate with each other, and the building refused to do it. They said, “We can’t do that! It’s a Philip Johnson building!”
Bernard: So we could talk to each other through the wall. Michael and I have always kept in the trenches in our job. We didn’t higher buffers. And there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening really fast. So you scream out to the guy, “What do you think? I’ve got so-and-so on the phone…” or “We got some kind of issue right here…” We did set up the IM, which kind of works for the secretary, but it doesn’t go between us.
Barker: We get asked this question a lot. And for the first time I’d like to answer it in a really clear and serious way. The first time I knew that I was going to be partners with Tom forever is in 1981. He said to me, “Listen. You have skills I do not have. I have skills you do not have. Imagine what we could do together.” That was it for me. OK? And what’s interesting is, we do have some things in common. And one of the major things in common, which nobody has noticed—and why would they—and what has been a key to our thriving for a long period of time: We know how to conduct ourselves and like to conduct ourselves within the context of a bigger entity. Tom has been a football player, he’s a great athlete. He always moves in the context of a team. I grew up on an American Army base in Germany. I liked being part of a bigger culture within a huge community that was focused, and it’s something that we find second nature in how to deal, which I think is one of the reasons we’ve really thrived within an environment at United Artists, at Orion, at Sony. And another reason for that is we know how to choose our employers, because from Sony Japan to Sony L.A. we have made clear to them—and they love it—that we are much more long-term thinkers as far as these films are concerned, as far as the revenues are concerned, and they respect that. They respect the nature of profits that may mean a limited upside. There are a lot of companies that don’t look at it that way.
Bernard: To the point of being part of the Sony empire, one day this painting showed up in our office, a beautiful painting. It was from [Nobuyuki] Idei, the head of the whole corporation. We didn’t see him that much. We’d bump into him occasionally.
Barker: This was like 1999.
Bernard: And then we got a little trophy. Sony, they have a giant meeting of all their corporate heads. Our division had won this prize that they’d given out every year as the best-run division in the Sony empire. We had no idea. It just showed up!
Barker: Mr. Idei went to Paris and picked out a painting personally. And we got it two years in a row! We’re very proud of that.
THR: Did you get a painting the second time?
Bernard: No. We got 12,000 Yen to throw a party the second time. But the painting’s still there. We have no idea its origins or who did it.
Barker: It’s right outside our office.
THR: How do you stay engaged every day?
Bernard: The movies! Every movie’s different, every day is different. Being involved in the movie business, there is a constant flow of change. People get older, the media’s changed, the tastes change, the way you reach the people changes, the filmmakers change. And you have to be on top of that and you have to be part of that. I can’t think there’s ever been a day that I’ve gone to work where it’s been the same. And you get the satisfaction of seeing the results of your work with the performance of the movies. So there’s the sort of an immediate satisfaction, or disappointment, but you’re engaged and what you do you can actually see happen.
THR: In the history of Sony Classics, what movie’s been the most surprisingly disappointing, and what’s been the most surprising in a positive way?
Bernard: I’ll give you one disappointment, because, as I said, the world changes. There was a movie called Germinal. Claude Berri directed it, Gerard Depardieu starred in it, it was one of the most famous books in France. 1993. I ended up drawing the lot to go to France to watch it. It was a great art movie. Claude Berri made Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. It looked like Art Movie of the Year. We bought it, brought it back, and it had opened to $30 million in France. Came here: nothing. Nobody came. It was a moment where the foreign language world was not on top anymore. The audience’s taste had changed, and the American independent and the British pictures had turned up. But we did not expect that. We lost a few bucks on that one.
Barker: We’ve had moments of great stupidity. Like when we didn’t buy sex, lies and videotape.
Bernard: The biggest surprise was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon going to $130 million. We thought it was good but… It was a moment of change in the culture. Everything worked on that one. That was the scenario of everything went right.
Barker: I’m sorry, but in front of my face, despite all the great nominations we had yesterday, all I can think of is Robert Duvall [in Get Low] and Lesley Manville [in Another Year]. Because these are two actors that gave two of the greatest performances in the history of movies. I don’t know anything more we could have done to try to help make that happen. So I was really floored by that. I have always in my life wanted to be part of artists even though I could never be an artist myself. This was the place where we could be part of these artists’ lives but in a meaningful, positive way. So when we spend time with Mike Leigh or Almodovar—we interact with Almodovar every week—it is so meaningful for us because we feel like we’re helping great artists move forward. And that has been a driving force with us. The artists want their movies to be seen.
The idea that The Illusionist is in the best animated film [category], and Sylvain Chomet is such a genius that people don’t know about, and he’s trying something that’s not obviously commercial, and if we can help that in any way that just makes us feel so good. It gives us value in life. But the most profound incident in my life for success was Kurosawa’s Ran at Orion.  Basically, we had invested in the movie in the script stage, we had gone to Japan to see him shoot, it was relatively early in our careers, and it was a major motion picture for us. And when the Japanese committee refused to enter it as the Japanese entry for the best foreign film, we were horrified. So we did a whole campaign to get him a nomination for best director and other nominations for the film. And it got nominated for best director and for four or five other nominations. Kurosawa came to America, and he said through his interpreter, “I want to be with these guys. I want to travel in America with these guys. Because they love me more than the Japanese. They’re young and they look really interesting.” So we went around the country with Kurosawa, and we ended up at the Oscars and he insisted that we sit with him. He squired us around. We went to San Francisco with him, we met George Lucas, we met all these people, and it was just an incredible thing.
Bernard: One of the most memorable lunches we ever had was at the Hotel Du Cap, with Vincent Canby and Kurosawa. It was unbelievable.
Barker: That was 1993. It made us satisfied we were helping the greatest living filmmaker. Those were prime moments in our lives.
Bernard: Because we like movies. We grew up with them, from college, Michael even more than me. But we got to meet the greatest film directors—and have relationships with them—of our time. We met Truffaut when he had The Last Metro, Michael was a very close friend of Louis Malle’s, we’ve been with Pedro for so many different movies. Rohmer, we always chat with him, and he’ll ask us, “Why are you buying my movies?”
Barker: But you know, the thing is, you learn a lot over the years. Being with Pedro Almodovar and his brother, Agustin Almodovar, it’s a meaningful relationship professionally and also we connect with them in friendship terms. The other thing that I’ve learned over the years, and has been very important, is how you get through failure with filmmakers and with producers. Because you’re going to have movies that don’t work. And when they don’t work the distributor gets blamed, we always expect that to happen. But if the relationship with the filmmaker and the producer can somehow get through that experience and then go on to the next one, it makes the bond stronger with the filmmaker and the producer and the sales agent. That’s been really an eye-opener for me over the years, but I think you have to be in the business for a long time to get the rhythm of that.