Cannes: President of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition Steven N. Bersch (Q&A)

9:00 PM PST 05/18/2013 by Pamela McClintock

UPDATED: The Cannes veteran discusses his most difficult acquisition, avoiding the fest craziness and why he won’t be calling Michael Lynton at 4 a.m.

Don’t underestimate one of the most unassuming film acquisition executives on the Croisette: Steven N. Bersch. He’s well into his sixth year as president of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, one of the most prolific buyers at any film festival or market. Bersch had big shoes to fill in replacing Peter Schlessel, who now runs FilmDistrict, but he’s managed just fine. He and his team, led by acquisitions chief Joe Matukewicz, acquire films for a variety of Sony platforms, including the studio’s international operation and TriStar, as well as for the faith-based Affirm Films and Stage 6 Films (both SPWA labels). Already at Cannes this year, Bersch, 57, has picked up Latin American and Eastern European rights to Spinning Gold, the Neil Bogart biopic starring Justin Timberlake, with more territory deals likely.

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In 2010, one of Bersch’s biggest coups was snapping up U.S. rights to the hit horror pic Insidious in tandem with FilmDistrict. The movie, costing a mere $1.5 million to make, earned a sizable $54 million at the box office, and a sequel hits theaters Sept. 13. The long list of movies Bersch has picked up for one Sony platform or another include the upcoming Mark Wahlberg-Denzel Washington action pic 2 Guns, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which makes its worldwide premiere in competition at Cannes on May 23. He also engineered the deal to acquire U.S. and international television rights to David Fincher’s House of Cards. On the eve of making his sixth trek to the South of France, Bersch sat down with THR to reveal how he and Sony Pictures Classics won the rights to the Stephenie Meyer-produced Austenland and why he doesn’t like calling Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman-CEO Michael Lynton in the middle of the night.

The Hollywood Reporter: What attracted you to Spinning Gold, the biopic of legendary record producer Neil Bogart (who was closely aligned with the rise of disco)?

Steven N. Bersch: It’s a very well-written script about a fascinating person and I think the picture will work everywhere.
 
THR: Last year, you struck one of the biggest deals in the history of the European Film Market when buying up the Mark Wahlberg-Denzel Washington action pic 2 Guns for Sony’s international operation. Are you planning on making a similar purchase in Cannes this year?

Bersch: I don’t think there are any films here of that size.
 
THR: How competitive is it among buyers these days?

Bersch: There’s more product in the last two years than I have ever seen before. It’s good, and bad. It’s harder to focus, but the key is to focus on what you’re really passionate about and what you think has real potential.

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THR: What has been your most nerve-wracking acquisition?

Bersch: Insidious. It premiered in the midnight section of the Toronto Film Festival in 2010, and it was the fifth night in a row that we’d watched a midnight film. We were all tired but we dragged ourselves to see it. We stayed up all night closing the deal. I literally remember sending the final email at 6:10 a.m. before taking a nap and then going to the airport. The good thing about midnight screenings is that you’re often done by breakfast. The worst part is when you’re not done and it bleeds into the next day.
 
THR: At Sundance this year, you won the bidding war for worldwide rights to Austenland, the movie Stephenie Meyers produced about a woman, played by Keri Russell, who is so obsessed by Pride & Prejudice that she goes to a Jane Austen theme park in the U.K. How did you prevail?

Bersch: There were a lot of people in the mix, for sure. Tom Bernard and Michael Barker were very interested in taking U.S. rights and so we threw our lot with them very early. And so we turned on the Sony worldwide machine. It’s very attractive to producers. We can offer Austenland, or any other film, to every territory in the world.

THR: Did you personally talk to Stephenie Meyer?

Bersch: Tom and Michael got on the phone with her and talked through what their ideas were for the movie.
 
THR: Does every acquisition have to be approved by Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman-CEO Michael Lynton and co-chairman Amy Pascal?

Bersch: They make it clear that I don’t have to go to them on every deal. On anything material I will go to them.

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THR: At what price does it become material?

Bersch: I’m not comfortable revealing that. Michael and Amy don’t want to slow me down at festivals if we’re making small purchases. They will be completely involved if it’s anything that involves significant studio resources. But I’m not waking up Michael at 4 a.m. in the morning to tell him about a modest purchase, such as Insidious. My job then becomes to show them the movie. We [SPWA and FilmDistrict] wanted to recut and reshoot some of the third act, which the filmmakers were very much on board with. We showed Michael, Amy and [vice chairman] Jeff Blake once we got to that point.
 
THR: What is the most grueling market or festival in terms of the sheer number of films you need to see?

Bersch: At Toronto and Sundance, I see five or six films a day. Cannes is not like that. I usually see one or two a day. Cannes and Berlin are much different because many of the projects we’re looking at aren’t finished films.

THR: How do you cope with the craziness of Cannes?

Bersch: It’s hardly ideal to try to buy movies in a five- or six-day period, you know? That’s not the most rational way to run a business, but it’s the nature of how the business works at these festivals. In other words, I don’t tend to go out a lot at night.

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