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“We’re like one brain with two sides,” laughs Tom Bernard as I sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast with him and his co-founder/co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, Michael Barker, who says of the art-house films they release through Sony’s indie division, “I believe we make a difference on these films, and that’s why we don’t do other kinds.”
(Click below to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Ridley Scott, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and Lily Tomlin.)
The understated Texans-turned-New Yorkers have worked together for the last 37 years, initially at Films Inc. (1979-1980), a distributor of 16mm films; then at UA Classics (1980-1983), the art-house division of filmmaker-centric United Artists; then at Orion Classics (1983-1992), a similar offshoot they established at Orion Pictures; and for the last quarter-century at Sony Pictures Classics (1992-), which they started with their former Orion Classics colleague Marcie Bloom and have continued to run without her since she suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1996.
Barker, 62, and Bernard, 64, are both rabid film buffs who emerged from 1970s college film societies with an appreciation for directors and fiscal responsibility, two concepts that have remained central to their ethos ever since. “If you want to sell us a movie, you’re gonna have to have a director and a script before we’ll talk to you,” Bernard says. “From our college film series days, we knew what we were spending, what we were taking in, and we needed to make a profit, so that was always foremost in our minds while we were doing our job.”
The duo arrived on the scene not long after the film industry experienced a major upheaval. “When Jaws came out in 1975,” Barker recalls, “the world changed, as far as theatrical distribution.” He explains, “It came out wide, in so many theaters everywhere in America, did a fortune and all of a sudden the studios realized that’s where the business was to make money and to get their production budgets back. We saw that with Star Wars, this huge success; then Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] — there were so many of them.”
He continues, “What happened before a movie like Jaws, and even at that time, was the studios made and distributed these [sorts of] films that now we distribute or Fox Searchlight distributes or Focus or any of these [indie] companies. It was part of their slate. And that changed overnight. So what Tom and I came to the conclusion of, with this boss of ours [Film Inc.’s Nathaniel] “Than” Kwit, was that it was a different business than the mainstream studio business, a business that had totally different variables than the mainstream business.”
Barker and Bernard joined UA Classics, where they worked alongside Donna Gigliotti, just as the Heaven’s Gate debacle was hitting at UA, which meant that they were the least of the studio’s concerns and were largely left to their own devices. While few of the films they spearheaded became blockbusters, they also rarely lost money and added immense value to the company’s library. “It’s not about winning the weekend,” Barker says of their kind of movie. “It’s about making these pictures evergreens after you’ve done the best you can to have the biggest box-office you can. Once you make them an evergreen, they keep giving over time. That’s really our mantra.”
Eventually, Barker, Bernard and Gigliotti followed their mentors Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow from UA to Orion, where they set up Orion Classics. “The thing that is very constant in Tom’s and my career is we have always worked for people that were incredibly worldly, very into world politics, into movies from around the world, very well-read people,” says Barker. “It’s not by accident we stuck by [Krim and Pleskow when they moved] and it’s not by accident we came to Sony, where Sony Japan has this worldview that’s similar. The people through the years that we’ve worked for at Sony — whether Peter Guber or John Calley or Michael Lynton — were also very worldly people.”
At Sony Classics, the duo have distributed a most eclectic group of films. Their first was Howard’s End (1992). Their highest grosser, by far, has been Mandarin-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which took in $128 million domestically and $214 million worldwide. Their best picture Oscar nominees have been Crouching Tiger, as well as Capote (2005), An Education (2009); Midnight in Paris (2011), Amour (2012) and Whiplash (2014). And rare is the Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar or Bennett Miller movie that they haven’t handled.
They’ve also distributed more Oscar winners than any other company in history when it comes to two categories: best documentary feature (1995’s Anne Frank Remembered, 1999’s One Day in September, 2003’s The Fog of War, 2010’s Inside Job and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man) and best foreign language film (1992’s Indochine, 1993’s Belle Epoque, 1994’s Burnt by the Sun, 1997’s Character, 1999’s All About My Mother, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2006’s The Lives of Others, 2007’s The Counterfeiters, 2009’s The Secret in Their Eyes, 2010’s In a Better World, 2011’s A Separation, Amour and 2015’s Son of Saul — for those of you counting at home, that’s seven of the last 10).
“What we’ve learned,” Barker says, “is you open these movies in a certain way, you watch your costs and a lot of them can cross over and can go into the mainstream.”
Over the course of our conversation, Barker and Bernard candidly dish on a wide-range of topics. Among them: why they’ve always based themselves in New York (it’s “the media capital of the world” and “we could stand out more,” says Barker); why they’ve chosen to be understated rather than flashy like many of their competitors (“We decided we were not gonna be those guys,” Bernard emphasizes); what they regard as their most memorable experience with a film (“[Akira Kurosawa‘s] Ran is probably our favorite film we’ve ever worked on in our lives because we were in [on it] from the very beginning,” Barker volunteers); and how they came to personally label and mail one of the first VHS “screeners” ever sent out to Academy members (1989’s Camille Claudel, which resulted in a best actress nom for Isabelle Adjani).
What keeps these guys — both of whom are married with children — pounding the pavement year after year, from Sundance to Cannes to Telluride to the Oscars? “I love doing it,” says Bernard, who’s also into hockey and fishing. “I’ll do it until I can’t make a living at it. It’s the most fun. I have fun every day I go to work. That’s what it’s all about. We’re not not achievement-looking guys, we’re not award-looking guys. I guess if there’s something to be proud of, look at the library we’ve brought out that’s part of cinema history. This is our work. Our lives are what you see. This is what we did, every day. There’s a piece of us in every film that we brought to the theaters in America.” He adds, “I think what we do helps change the world for the better. So we can both go to sleep at night knowing we’re doing something good.”
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