Buzzin' Berney

Distrib exec back with leaner niche scheme

It has been a bigger mystery than the plot of "Memento." For months, the specialty film world has been abuzz over what Bob Berney's new banner will look like — and when it will be unfurled.

The distribution exec, known for breaking out such tricky fare as "Memento" and "The Passion of the Christ," has been quietly building industry and financial support for a new shingle.

Since Warner Bros. last fall closed down the Picturehouse unit he headed as president, Berney has closely guarded details of his plans, though several key points have recently emerged.

In his new guise, Berney will likely release fewer films than he has in the past but will enjoy more independence than he did at Picturehouse, which was a feeder for New Line and HBO titles sometimes greenlighted outside of Berney's purview. (On the downside, the distribber will likely now have less marketing muscle than a parent conglom like Time Warner can provide.)

William Pohlad's River Road Entertainment, which has remained in the game of releasing ambitious pictures and is now financing/producing Terrence Malick's long-gestating "The Tree of Life," is the lead candidate to finance the Berney venture.

As for the types of films Berney will release, the new banner will likely go for bigger commercial plays than the niche fare — think "Whale Rider," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" — with which he made his name.

An announcement about Berney's new outfit could come as soon as the Festival de Cannes, where four years ago Berney & Co. unveiled details of the Picturehouse venture.

Berney's first pick-up will likely be Jane Campion's "Bright Star," a literary tale that centers on the tragic romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The film, likely to play at Cannes, is Campion's first in six years. Berney has apparently made a gentleman's agreement to buy the picture, though the Australian Film Finance Corp. production is listed as being without U.S. distribution.

Despite his past emphasis and expertise in theatrical, Berney's new venture will likely include an element of digital distribution. Since screens are more crowded and the theatrical market for non-tentpoles largely stagnant, digital and other alternative platforms are thought to be the only way a business can grow.

Both Berney and Pohlad declined comment. (partialdiff)
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