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Sony Classics' Michael Barker and Tom Bernard Reveal Their Oscar Season Strategy

The veteran distributors predict "Blue Jasmine" will be one of 10 best picture Oscar nominees and "Tim's Vermeer" could be the winning doc but fear that new Academy voting procedures could hurt foreign films from smaller countries.

Michael Barker and Tom Bernard
Fabrizio Maltese
Michael Barker, left, and Tom Bernard

NEW YORK -- Why did Blue Jasmine play on more screens at one time than any other Woody Allen film? Will the third time prove the charm for Richard Linklater's Before series in the best picture race? Could the documentary Tim's Vermeer be this year's Searching for Sugar Man? And is it a bad thing that all the members of the Academy now get to vote for the best foreign language film Oscar?

These are among the many things that I discussed with Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the longtime co-chiefs of Sony's art-house film division Sony Pictures Classics, when we recently sat down at the Toronto Film Festival for an extended conversation about their 2013 awards slate and strategy.

The duo has worked together for 32 years, originally at United Artists Classics and Orion Classics, and for the last 21 years at Sony Classics, the Gotham-based outfit that they co-founded with Marcie Bloom. They are not just business partners but also close friends, and that has helped them to become two of the longest-reigning and most successful execs of the modern era.

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"Quality films" is their mantra, and the rest of the hullabaloo of show business is of little interest to them. It's not by accident that their on-screen logo is a simple blue screen with the underlined white words "Sony Pictures Classics" rather than anything flashier. They prefer to leave the chest-puffing to their competitors.

They brought nine films to the Toronto festival and they will have a strong presence at the New York Film Festival, which is just getting underway. Its line-up includes the SPC titles The Invisible WomanTim's Vermeer and the vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. The fest is also mounting special career tributes to Blue Jasmine star Cate Blanchett and Invisible Woman director and star Ralph Fiennes.  

At the time of our conversation, they were also hopeful that Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher would be ready in time to compete this year, but this week, they announced that the film is moving into 2014 to allow the director more time to complete it.

The Mission

THR: Do all Sony Classics films share anything in common? What is your primary mission when you elect to produce and/or distribute a film?

Barker: Quality. We make or distribute the type of low-budget movie that a big studio wouldn't have done. We're the alternative.

Bernard: And it may perform as well as a big studio movie -- you never know.

Barker: Like Blue Jasmine.

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THR: Do you feel that is harder to make or find those kinds of movies today? Everywhere I go, I read and hear that the only things people want to make these days are remakes, sequels and adaptations of existing properties, and that movies of the sort you describe are an endangered species...

Bernard: No, I mean, there's always been bad movies and always been good movies. For instance, everyone says that foreign language is going out of business, but it's the best it's ever been, in terms of audience and box-office. The culture keeps moving, and the movies keep reflecting the culture. And, as long as you're on top of that, you're gonna find audiences who want to connect with these movies.

Blue Jasmine: Woody's Second Hit in His Last Three Tries

THR: Blue Jasmine, which opened over the summer, was widely embraced by critics -- especially Cate Blanchett's performance -- and is rapidly approaching $30 million at the box-office, making it one of Woody Allen's most commercially-successful films. Talk a little about your history with Woody and how well this film has performed...

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Barker: We've known Woody Allen for many, many years. Before we were at Sony Classics, we were at Orion Classics. We have always known about his films, and back then they were made and released by our sister companies.

Bernard: We started at U.A. Classics, and we put together a Woody Allen Film Festival around the country.

Barker: That was 1982! [laughs] But we really didn't start releasing his new films until we came to Sony. We've had six. And the sixth one, Blue Jasmine, is a very interesting one. When he showed us his first cut of the film, we recommended to him that we do something different with this one. Cannes would certainly take it, Venice would certainly take it, Toronto would certainly take it -- the obvious move, because it's such a serious film -- but, "Why don't we do something different, and not follow all those rules and not open in the fall like everybody else? Let's open in the summer against all the blockbusters because the public is looking for a breath of fresh air." Woody thought that was a great idea and he told us he had a history of this, of opening at odd times -- he told us about Annie Hall and even Hannah and Her Sisters, these movies that opened in February and ended up winning Oscars the year after. And it turned out even better than we expected, as the perfect alternative summer film, and here we are, over $26 million. I think one of the reasons it's so successful is not only that it's such a high-quality film, but there's also something in the air right now where the public wants to see something about the Bernie Madoff-era that they haven't seen before, that they can relate to, and it's obvious that this is that film.

Bernard: And also the cast. Woody put together one of the most eclectic casts he's had. He's got people in there for almost every demographic.

Barker: One of the things Tom and I did was we really went after the Andrew Dice Clay fan-base, the Louie C.K. fan-base, the Alec Baldwin fan-base -- not necessarily the fan-base that you would equate with Woody Allen, but it really works on that level. You know, the Andrew Dice Clay audience maybe hasn't seen a Woody Allen film, but they came and they liked it.

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THR: At its height back in August, Blue Jasmine played on more screens, at one time, than any other Woody Allen movie ever -- somewhere around 1,200. Did it go that wide in anticipation of the public's enthusiasm or in reaction to it?

Bernard: Two reasons: (1) the movie was that good, and (2) the studio movies were doing poorly, so we had the screens.

Barker: The thing is, we pick a wide date, you know, and you never know how wide you're gonna go at that date. But it was very obvious from the first week or two of Blue Jasmine -- it was doing so well and the exhibitors really wanted to play it everywhere in the country -- that it made sense to go to 1,200 screens, as opposed to the 900 screens that we did for Midnight in Paris.

Bernard: We started a media campaign very early on, and we made the movie very difficult to see, so lots of people wrote about the film wanting to know what it was about. It became an event.

Barker: And also theater chains like AMC and Regal were very excited about this film, as well as the usual orders of Woody, like Landmark and so forth, that it just made a lot of sense. It's just really exciting that it's doing as well as it's doing.

THR: You've both emphasized that you believe that the awards prospects for this film are not limited to Blanchett for best actress and Woody for best original screenplay, but extend to include Sally Hawkins for best supporting actress and even best picture, right?

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Barker: Definitely. Picture, director, screenplay, costumes. We think Sally will be in there. We'll even do a campaign for the supporting actors. Because we feel that it's a movie that everyone seems to be embracing.

Bernard: It's a serious movie that has things to say. It's one of his major works. And the Academy are fans of Woody and I think they can't wait to get the DVD around Thanksgiving.

Before Midnight: Will the Third Time Be the Charm for a Best Picture Nom?

THR: Before Midnight, which you guys released back in May, is among the best reviewed movies of the year, with a 98% positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Can you remind me, did you guys distribute the first two films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset?

Barker: No. Actually Columbia released the first one, Warner Bros. released the second one -- and the first two are owned by Warner Bros., because those two movies were made by Castle Rock.

Bernard: Because they used to be at Columbia, and then they moved to Warner Bros.

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THR: So you guys go to this year's Sundance Film Festival, you see Before Midnight and you say what?

Barker: We buy it two hours later.

Bernard: Yeah. [laughs]

THR: It's another one that didn't just do well critically but also did quite well at the box office for a specialty film...

Bernard: Yeah. It's a movie that's got a built-in audience. There's a group of people who have grown up with the other two.

Bernard: These are check-points for people's lives. It's sort of an interesting way of looking at, "Where am I today?"

Barker: Also, we had released Rick Linklater's Slacker, we had released SubUrbia and we've always been very close to him. And this movie shows a grace and mastery in his filmmaking -- it's so organic and beautifully-made. And the screenplay that the three of them wrote -- which was word-for-word followed, it wasn't improvisatory at all -- is just an amazing piece. That film has a shot to be one of the 10 for best picture -- and you can't count out Richard, or that screenplay or the cinematography, you know? This is the finest film of the three.

THR: Do you think it will play better on a screener than some of the others?

Barker: I think so. Tom and I walked into the Sony building the other day, and they always run the trailers on all these monitors, and he said, "Barker, stop!" I said, "Okay..." And he said, "Look at that." And all of the monitors were playing the trailer to Before Midnight, and it was the most beautiful-looking thing I have ever seen on a screen. It was just staggering.

The Invisible Woman: Ralph Fiennes Directs Himself

THR: Is The Invisible Woman an awards contender? Fiennes' feature directorial debut, Coriolanus in 2011, was well-reviewed but wound up with no Oscar nominations...

Barker: Absolutely. I'll tell you, the reviews have been really superb for that film. What Ralph Fiennes has done with Dickens' life is amazing.

Bernard: The fact that he directed and starred in it? When you look at that performance -- I said, "Ralph, how do you direct yourself like that?" He said it was the hardest thing he's ever done. He had a little play-back thing on a table where he looked at the scenes.

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Barker: And Felicity Jones is incredible, and the other women in the film are incredible, and you've got the costumes, the set design. It's just really dramatically engaging. And we're gonna open it on Christmas Day because you equate Dickens with Christmas Day and The Christmas Carol, and it just makes sense. There's something about that movie that is so fresh from the other Masterpiece Theatre kind of movies. We think we have a shot at multiple nominations there.

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THR: What about Kill Your Darlings? That's a movie with the title of an action-movie but the subject matter of an awards hopeful...

Barker: I watched its Hollywood Foreign Press conference from afar yesterday, and it was so obvious that people are genuinely engaged by this movie. It's a great movie from a first-time director, a major talent, John Krokidas, and the actors are really fantastic -- you know, you've got Dane DeHaan, you've got Daniel Radcliffe, you've got Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall and Jack Huston, and they're all great in the film. So it's one of those wait and see, after you open, where you're gonna stand, awards-wise. But you can't count it out.

THR: What, in your gut, is the most achievable nomination for that film? Original screenplay?

Barker: I don't know. We could probably come up with 18 actors who deserve to be nominated for best actor this year. Daniel Radcliffe is one of them. Ralph Fiennes is one of them. So we'll see how that all pans out. I mean, Daniel Radcliffe has really stretched himself in this film in a way that he never has.

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Bernard: I was saying to Michael the other day that the Golden Globe Awards are going to be one heck of a show this year because they've got 10 spots--

Barker: --for the actors and for the actresses. And that is going to be high-powered this year.

Bernard: They're going to fill every one with a legitimate choice.

Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film Contenders

THR: Why have you guys managed to have so much success over so many years with documentary features and foreign language films? You seem to win the Oscar for at least one each year...

Barker: I don't know. We try to be as eclectic as possible with our slate. At Toronto, we [had] four documentaries, two foreign language films, three English-language major productions -- it just reflects our slate. As Tom says, it's a great time for foreign language films. And it's an even better time for documentaries. If you have the kind of documentary that plays theatrically, these movies can not only be profitable but they're the kinds of movies that stand the test of time. We made The Fog of War, we made Inside Job and last year we had Searching for Sugar Man and The Gatekeepers. Every year we want to have a fresh and exciting movie like that; we have that in Tim's Vermeer this year. Ever year we want to have one of those great journalistic movies; we have that in The Armstrong Lie. And then every year we want to have documentaries that are really in the zeitgeist, that people are passionate about; we think the Ralph Steadman movie [For No Good Reason] is so strong, and we also feel that Jodorowsky's Dune is also so strong.

Bernard: There was a time when people said, "Oh, documentaries don't work." We've never felt that way. Our motto is, "Quality movies from around the world," and our slate naturally becomes eclectic because we buy the movies that we think are good and the audiences respond to that kind of quality. You know, we've had documentaries like Crumb, Dogtown and Z-Boys, and people would look and say, "Why do you have a documentary? It's not gonna work.

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Barker: One Day in September.

Bernard: Starting with the Anne Frank story [Anne Frank Remembered], which we released almost 20 years ago, I mean, we have a long list of this stuff. When you see it, you buy it. It's interesting: since reality TV showed up a while ago, people have become more familiar with the documentary style and it's become something that they're more comfortable watching. It's like when subtitles became more popular with the CNN scroll; the public learned how to process subtitles, the mainstream people, so now you're seeing subtitled movies do, you know, $20 million.

THR: Let me ask you to talk about the foreign language films that you're handling, The Past, The Lunchbox and Wadjda...

Barker: Yeah. We have three foreign language films, and we have no idea which countries are going to submit them -- or even if the countries are gonna submit them.

THR: Is The Past, a film in the French language directed by an Iranian [Farhadi], a French film or an Iranian film?

Barker: Well, [Austrian Michael Haneke's] The White Ribbon qualified for Germany and Austria [it was submitted by Germany] and Amour qualified from Austria and France [it was submitted by Austria], so The Past could qualify for Iran and France. And so we'll see -- we have no say in it, you know? We're waiting. And I really believe that Berenice Bejo has a shot in the best actress category for it. And we think it would be wonderful if India submitted The Lunchbox [Editor's Note: shortly after this interview India elected to submit another film] -- you have seen the standing ovations, you have seen the response to that film. And then there's Wadjda from Saudi Arabia [Note: Saudi Arabia has officially submitted that film]. But we'll see over the next week, because it's all gonna become clear very quickly.

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Bernard: Every hand is a different deal. [laughs]

Barker: [laughs] I mean, my favorite story is that one year we had five entries -- recently -- and we all said [about one], "This is the movie that is gonna win." It was The Band's Visit. We told all four of the other guys, "This is the movie that is gonna win. Sorry, you've just gotta understand that." Just to prep them. It was entered by Israel -- and then it was disqualified! The Academy claimed fifty-six percent of it was in broken-English! So you can never predict what will happen you know?

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THR: The last few years have produced a lot of great movies. The Academy now nominates anywhere between five and 10 for the best picture Oscar. Are you happy with that change?

Barker: This change from the five to the 10? We think it's so smart because it spurs people on to think that they really have a shot at being one of the 10, and it just causes more quality movies to be made. Even if it's a subconscious thing that's going on, it just feels more open and more diverse, like the market does.

Bernard: You know, I think if you go back over maybe the last 10 years before the 10, there were probably five more each year that were just as good.

THR: Do you feel that the way that they have it right now, where the number of best picture nominees can fluctuate between five and 10, is better than the couple of years when they guaranteed 10?

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Barker: Five to 10 is fine. I gotta tell you, I think every year it's gonna be nine or 10. It will definitely be 10 this year -- I would put money on it -- because there are so many good movies.

THR: The Academy has taken a lot of heat over the last few years about its rules and regulations governing the documentary feature and foreign language categories, and they've taken steps to try to address those. Do you feel that they have?

Bernard: The Academy this year has announced that they're going to send out the foreign language nominees on DVD and have the full membership vote, the same as with the shorts and the docs last year, and I am very concerned about that because I think that's not quite fair. These foreign language films from every country reflect the country, the culture, the national pride -- it's a very big deal around the world -- and if we have a movie in the category and Ecuador has a movie in the category, but Ecuador's doesn't have a distributor, there's not a balance in terms of what money can be brought to the table to create the awareness for that film. So I'm hoping that the Academy makes a special voting section on their electronic ballot where people have to say, "I've seen all five."

THR: Do you think people will be honest about that?

Barker: Yeah -- if you're reminded. On the BAFTA ballot, when you vote online, with every category they ask, "Have you seen all of these nominees?" And I think if you're reminded and you're not just going through the ballot--

Bernard: --and you have to do a couple of extra clicks to do that.

THR: Well, if the Academy was to do something like that, it wouldn't help you or your films...

Barker: Yeah, sure. Here's the deal. If you want to retain the integrity of those categories, the more Academy members who see the movie, the better it is. So the more you remind them "You have to see all five to vote," it ceases to be a popularity contest -- you know, "Well, I haven't seen any of those, but I heard about that one so I'll vote for that!" If Academy members are reminded, "Hey, it's very important that you see all five or you can't vote in this category," then you have a real honest reflection of what is the best.

Bernard: We want to see that even playing-field. That's important. You don't want someone to just vote for the most popular foreign language movie that everyone knows because it was in theaters -- you know, "Oh, I know that one!" The Academy's got a responsibility -- which they really haven't taken up -- to start an education process for that and the shorts, even more so.

THR: This same democratization of the Academy -- allowing the entire membership to vote to determine the winner -- was implemented last year for the best documentary feature category. That certainly benefits the biggest crowd-pleaser, which last year was Sugar Man and this year might well be Tim's Vermeer...

Barker: But you know, we have a lot of documentaries. And the fact is you don't want it to be just a popularity contest, whether it's in our interest or not. For example, last year we felt we had the two strongest ones: Sugar Man and Gatekeepers. If it was strictly a popularity contest, we knew it would be Sugar Man. But if it wasn't, Gatekeepers would have had a shot. So you want to make sure that the integrity is there. I think it's great if many more people vote in the category if they see all five films. We both adore that. And we also think the nomination process for both foreign film and documentary is very smart, to get to the five. It's just important that that reminder be there so that it doesn't become a popularity contest.

THR: I wonder what your take is on IFC's predicament at the moment: they picked up two foreign language films at Cannes, Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme d'Or, but wasn't released by France in time to qualify for this year's Oscars, and Like Father, Like Son, which won the Grand Prix, but wasn't chosen by Japan as the nation's official submission. If you were in that situation--

Barker: We have been in that situation, many times. Look, you have to live according to the rules of the Academy. It's one picture, one country. That's the way they've set it up. It's not ideal, but the fact of the matter is it's cumbersome enough for the Academy to figure out how to deal with around 90 films; to deal with 180 films would be kind of impossible. So that is what it is, you know? We have been disappointed many times when Spain has not submitted Pedro [Almodovar]'s movies. [Editor's Note: After this interview took place, Spain elected not to submit Almodovar's I'm So Excited!, which was released in the U.S. by Sony Classics.]

Bernard: Kurosawa's Ran wasn't selected by Japan!

Barker: Yeah. Last year we had Rust and Bone, and the other one [The Intouchables] was selected. So you've gotta live with it. It's not like Rust and Bone didn't work. We find alternative ways to reach the audience, you know? It's a shame that a movie like Rust and Bone was not submitted, and we were deeply disappointed, but the rules are the rules.

THR: Would it be a better system if they did, with the foreign language category, what they are doing this year with the documentary feature category, which is saying, "Rather than sending you a list or a box of DVDs, we're just going to completely deregulate the process and leave it up to you to decide what you want to see and nominate."

Bernard: No. I think that's a bad idea. There are movies that have made it and directors that have become important people in the industry because of the existing foreign language selection process -- people who would have never had the ability to be recognized otherwise. Take a movie like Asghar [Farhadi]'s A Separation from Iran or The Lives of Others from Germany. If it was left to the people to sort of find the most popular names you know, these guys don't show. If you go through the history of the foreign language Oscar, there are many significant films like this every year, and they're films that would have never seen the light of day if that process didn't exist. It furthers the film industry even within those countries.

Barker: It's just not perfect, you know. The Academy has those rules in place to force the Academy to recognize cinema from places around the world they wouldn't ordinarily recognize. In some ways it's not fair to countries like France or Spain or Italy, which always have more than one great film--

Bernard: Or government subsidies.

Barker: But, in other ways, it recognizes parts of the world you wouldn't normally recognize, which we think is really important. If what you suggest was in play, you might have five French films nominated for best foreign language film. Well, that is not why the Academy set up the best foreign language film category the way they have. Now, what you could do is deregulate it in the sense of having one film per country -- and all of the foreign films that opened in Los Angeles over the course of the year. The problem is you could have 200 or more films, and how would you deal with that? I mean, it's an administrative nightmare. So I really think that, of the options, this is the best that they can do. What I do like about the Academy is they evolve and they change and they try to improve the rules as they go forward, like the changing of five best picture nominees to 10. And I think the documentary category has gotten better in recent years because documentarians are making the selections, as opposed to a different type of committee that made them before. So, you know, it's kind of an evolutionary thing, and it's never gonna be perfect -- and they would tell you that.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg