How Michael Barker and Tom Bernard Became Kings of the Art House
As Sony Pictures Classics celebrates 20 years, the co-presidents spill all to THR about their close partnership, what it's like to work with Ang Lee and Pedro Almodovar and how it feels to give Woody Allen his biggest hit ever.
Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are a rarity in the movie business: They are synonymous with their own company, one they founded two decades ago -- Sony Pictures Classics.
Thirty-year veterans of the specialty film business who created and ran United Artists Classics then Orion Classics, Bernard and Barker (along with Marcie Bloom) found a new home at Sony in January 1992. As co-presidents of the autonomous New York-based label, they have thrived as one of the most durable boutique distributors in history -- 348 releases thus far and an astounding 93 Oscar nominations with 23 wins, including one this year for Inside Job. Along the way, they've championed the work of such filmmakers as Pedro Almodovar, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar Wai and Woody Allen, who has had his biggest U.S. hit, the $98 million worldwide grosser Midnight in Paris, on their watch this summer.
"If I can take an old expression and turn it on its head, there is accounting for taste, and it can be found in the consistent success and merit of the films brought to audiences by the brilliant and enduring partnership of Michael Barker and Tom Bernard," says Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton.
As they enter a third decade at the helm of SPC, Bernard and Barker recently reflected on the reason quality makes a good business strategy.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you guys meet?
Tom Bernard: We met in 1979. I was at Films Incorporated, and I started the theatrical division there. Films Incorporated was a company that sold movies to colleges and prisons. They handled a lot of studio movies in 16mm, before DVD and VHS. I had The Shout, with Alan Bates in it, and the old ABC repertory library, movies like Zachariah and Straw Dogs. It was back in the traditional days when there were self-distributors and guys with cigars and relationships, and there were theaters that couldn't get a lot of the films. So I cut out a lot of the middlemen. And Michael was there selling movies to prisons. At Christmas, we ended up pulling each other's names out of the hat to give each other gifts in the "secret Santa" thing.
THR: Are you serious? What did you give Michael?
Bernard: I gave him The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson. He gave me some hockey equipment, but it didn't fit.
THR: How did Sony Classics start? How did you end up there?
Bernard: Orion Classics went out of business after co-founder Arthur Krim and his company went bankrupt, and we needed to find a place to continue doing the specialized releasing business that we had been in. We looked at a number of the major studios, and Peter Guber and Jon Dolgen and Mike Medavoy, who were all at [Sony-owned] Columbia TriStar at the time, were the people that understood what we did for a living and were very interested in having us on board.
Michael Barker: The Japanese and Sony Japan had always had an interest in a long-term movie company devoted to quality film, even before they bought Columbia Pictures. So it was always of interest to us. I'll tell you a story about that -- Tom, stop me if I'm going too far. Mike Medavoy and Peter Guber decided they wanted to lure us to Sony Pictures Entertainment, so they asked us to come out there for a meeting. We met with Mike first, and he walked us through the studio. On that walk, we met Paul Verhoeven, who had just finished Basic Instinct. We knew him from the films he had done in the Netherlands, and it was such an interesting conversation. Then Francis Coppola came up in his golf cart. He was filming a scene from Dracula at the studio, and he asked us if we wanted to go see. We went into the studio and ran into Michael Ballhaus, who is a great cinematographer who we had met at UA when he was doing the Fassbinder movies. I don't know if it was set up by Mike and Peter, but by the time we had gotten to the Thalberg Building we felt very at home. Is that accurate, Tom?
Bernard: Yeah. That was too much. One other thing about Columbia is they had Triumph Films, so they were in this business before and certainly had a good understanding of it back in the early '80s.
THR: How does it play out when one of you is convinced a film is worthy and the other isn't? Does it have to be unanimous?
Barker: Pretty much, yeah. You have to convince the other guy that it's going to work because really it's about, "How do we make this movie work?" There's a lot that goes into that. If you could look inside our brains when we're sitting there watching the movie, and watch the evolution of what happens over the three or four days of when we're trying to make that decision, there's discovery -- bringing things that maybe you wouldn't have been aware of in terms of the nature of the film and the roots of the film, the basis of the story. There's talk about what's going on in the country today and the culture and what groups would connect to the movie and why. You think about what the critics think. You think about how user-friendly is the director. Where does it fit in the release pattern? All these things are discussed, and you come to a conclusion.
Bernard: What's amazing is that as different as we are as personalities, we agree on a lot more than you think. It's very few we don't.
THR: Do you have examples where each of you had to convince the other?
Bernard: Kung Fu Hustle was one that I really connected with and convinced Michael that it might have a shot.
Barker: It was made by Sony local-language, and the company really didn't know to what extent it would travel beyond Asia. We saw it without any special effects whatsoever. Tom took to it like crazy, and he convinced me how this would be a real crossover film. On The Lives of Others, I remember I saw that film and called Tom and gave him all my reasons, and he said: "That is good enough for me. You've just convinced me without me having seen the film." [Hustle grossed $17.1 million domestically, and Others grossed $11.3 million. Both rank among SPC's 20 highest-grossing movies.]
THR: What would you say is the most mainstream movie you've released?
Barker: Crouching Tiger.
Bernard: No, Midnight in Paris.
Barker: Oh, yeah. Midnight in Paris -- unbelievable. We're talking about the first time Woody Allen is a commercial hit in Montana, Idaho, Mississippi, Alabama. Unbelievable.
THR: Was there any hesitation about taking on Roman Polanski's new film? How do you balance an artist's personal behavior or reputation with the impact of his or her art?
Barker: No. We're really not a judge of other people's personal lives. Listen, I think Roman Polanski is one of the great filmmakers in the world.
Bernard: When we're looking at somebody we're going to get involved with, what we're looking for is somebody who is going to be professional in his interaction with us and in the release of the movie. If we're going to make a judgment, it's that.
Barker: Roman Polanski has been a director that I have adored all my life, since the first time I saw Rosemary's Baby in 1968. And the idea of becoming involved with a filmmaker who is working at the peak of his form, it's a great thing. It's what we're put on this Earth to do.
THR: Do you see a narrative in the past 20 years in terms of how you've changed, or has SPC been the constant?
Bernard: One of the keys to our success is we know what business we want to be in, and one of the things that keeps us fresh is we change with the times. We change with the media; we change with the culture; we change with the tastes. Things are constantly changing every month in our business. We were one of the first people to get involved with Facebook. We would tie in with talent and tour them around the country, rather than have the country come to them. We were the first people to send out videocassettes for the Oscars. We had a movie called Camille Claudel with Isabelle Adjani in 1989. And we had a guy who was advising us, a friend of hers. We said: "We're not going to be able to get her an Oscar nomination. We can't get everybody to see the movie." The guy said, "What about sending out a cassette to the actors?" And we did. And she got nominated!
Barker: I'd love to tell who it is.
Bernard: You can. It's fine with me.
Barker: It was Warren Beatty. I'll never forget this. He said, "Make sure it's in the aspect ratio of the film so they don't think it's a commercial thing you're doing, that it's artistically true." I remember Tom and I, next to our desks, had stacks of these VHSs of Camille Claudel, and we literally sent them out of our office. And she got the Oscar nomination. I don't mind giving him credit for that because it was his idea.
THR: Could you have known you'd still be doing Sony Classics 20 years later?
Barker: That's what we always wanted.
Bernard: We never thought anything different. We've had people offer us jobs to go start our own companies. We've had people offer us positions in studios.
Barker: We've never been interested. When Tom and I started together 30 years ago at United Artists, we hit upon this thing that we were really driven by this idea of really supporting major filmmakers, and that these major filmmakers were the ones that were going to see us through in business, and that our creative decision was based on backing filmmakers that we really believed in. We believed they would have a long-term career. What is so gratifying about being here 20 years and understanding that the business plan works is you have many films where the initial theatrical release was not perceived as so successful, but the films keep giving year after year in DVD and television and so forth. They become evergreen, and that has to do with quality.
THR: Is there any incident in the Sony Classics lore where either of you has made a really boneheaded move?
Barker: There's one film that the minute the idea came up, Tom and I loved it. We put it in the Sundance Film Festival. I remember watching it with the audience, and I turned to the guy next to me and said, "Wasn't that great?" and he looked at me like I was out of my mind. We opened the film, and the New York Post called it the worst film of the century. It's a film that Tom and I and Bob Dylan and his manager, Jeff Rosen, still adore to this day -- Masked and Anonymous. It was a great experience, but literally no one bought into it.
Bernard: Having said all that, we made money with it.
Barker: Yeah, because we had music, the DVD and the VOD. Maybe Tom and I were in a kind of '70s state of mind where if that film was released in the '70s, it would have been a big deal. I mean, Bob Dylan singing "My Back Pages" in Spanish -- who doesn't like that?
THR: Why have you stayed together as a team so long?
Bernard: Because we enjoy different things, and we're both team players. We're very supportive of each other, and the enjoyment Michael takes out of it is different than the joy I take out of it. So we're really never stepping on each other's toes. And we have the same goal -- to get the movies and make them work. What I've always wanted to do is make sure I was in a business that was useful to society and helpful. The Jesuits did it to me.
Barker: Our goals are similar. Tom and I have always wanted to be a part of the movies. I think another aspect of why we've always stayed together is that, once a long time ago when we were in Los Angeles -- this was in the '80s -- Tom said to me, "Do you notice how everybody we meet wants to be doing something else?" You know, a producer wants to be a director, an actor wants to be a director, a distributor wants to be a producer. And he said, "We're kind of doing what we want to do." This is what we want to do, we don't want to do anything else. And I think that's true even today.
THR: What was the last film you liked that people would be surprised about?
Barker: The last movie I went to see was at the Lincoln Square. I went to see Friends With Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love. I liked them. I thought they were good. Richard Jenkins and Mila Kunis in Friends With Benefits -- wonderful.
Bernard: Let me think … The last one was the new Planet of the Apes movie. Going to the commercial movies, it's really another part of staying in touch with the audience and seeing who turns out, seeing what's going on in the theaters, seeing how the trailers work, seeing how people react, seeing what they're selling, what posters are up. We really are into keeping in touch on a grassroots level of our marketplace.
Barker: It's so instructive. On Mondays, we always talk to each other about the movies we saw. I actually find some major things in commercial movies.
THR: What's the most fun thing you do outside of movies?
Bernard: I love to go fishing for striped bass on Block Island, just off Montauk, N.Y. And down in Jersey on the shore. I like riding my bike. I like playing golf -- my handicap is 14. Certainly, playing hockey is a lot of fun. I play on a team with my two sons in the winter. A lot of the things I do outside of the office are very helpful to me in keeping in touch with the culture of the moment, which is one of the keys to us succeeding in being able to keep reaching our audiences with the movies. I work hard at it. I try and interact with people of all ages.
Barker: I'm a voracious reader. I like playing the stock market as a hobby. And I adore Shakespeare. Every summer in college, as a part of the English department of the University of Texas, I was not an actor, but there were 20 students that went off to a place called Winedale all summer and performed Shakespeare for ranchers and farmers in the Texas hill country. I did that three years in a row. I have always found that Shakespeare is a real guide for life.
THR: If you weren't doing what you do, what would be doing?
Bernard: I'd probably be a syndicated TV salesman, the guy who sells shows to stations all over the country.
Barker: You've gotta be kidding me, Bernard.
Bernard: That wouldn't have been my choice, but that's probably where I would have ended up.
Barker: I can't imagine doing anything else.
Bernard: But if you didn't do that, what would you do? What would your skills be? Would you be running a theater in Germany?
Barker: No, I don't have skills! I can't imagine. Even my father wondered if the films would ever pay off.
"When it comes to taste and talent, Michael and Tom are twin legends in the global film industry. They have an unerring eye for the best of world cinema, wherever it comes from, and deliver it to audiences everywhere with extraordinary conviction and enthusiasm. Directors, producers and actors know that their commitment to quality guarantees them the best chance of artistic recognition and satisfaction possible. This tribute is a reflection of the loyalty and admiration that Michael and Tom truly deserve."
-- Sir Howard Stringer, chairman, CEO and president of Sony Corporation
"It's hard for me to describe my feelings for the SPC team without getting awkwardly mushy. So I'll be purely descriptive: The past 20 years of American film culture would be unrecognizable were it not for their passion, their smarts, their taste, their vision and their pure love of independent world cinema."
-- James Schamus CEO of rival Focus Features
"Nobody has a feel for sophisticated filmmaking like these guys have had for more than 20 years. Thanks to these two and the team they lead, Sony Pictures Classics is such an important part of our studio and gives us entree into a whole world of filmmakers and audiences that we -- and the world -- might not otherwise know."
-- Amy Pascal Co-chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment
BY THE NUMBERS
- Ages: Michael 57, Tom 59
- Years Michael and Tom Have Worked in New York: 34
- Years Michael and Tom Have Worked Together: 30
- Years Married: Michael 30, to Betsy Barker, with two daughters; Tom 30, to Mercedes Danevic, with two sons
- SPC Academy Award noms: 93
- SPC Academy Awards: 23
- Career Academy Award noms: 116
- Career Academy Awards: 27
- Times SPC Films Opened the NYFF: 8
- SPC Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winners: 6
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS: Top 20 Domestic Releases
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): $128.1 million
- Midnight in Paris (2011): $51.6 million*
- Capote (2005): $28.8 million
- Howards End (1992): $26 million
- Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun IMAX, (1997): $18.8 million
- Kung Fu Hustle (2005): $17.1 million
- Across the Sea of Time IMAX, (1995): $16 million
- Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man IMAX, (2000): $15.6 million
- Wings of Courage IMAX, (1995): $15.1 million
- Friends With Money (2006): $13.4 million
- Volver (2006): $12.9 million
- Rachel Getting Married (2008): $12.8 million
- An Education (2009): $12.8 million
- Lone Star (1996): $12.4 million
- Winged Migration (2003): $11.7 million
- The Lives of Others (2007): $11.3 million
- House of Flying Daggers (2004): $11.1 million
- The Spanish Prisoner (1998): $9.6 million
- Talk to Her (2002): $9.3 million
- Get Low (2010): $9.2 million