Bob Berney struck gold with a dark Spanish film. But can he do it again?Bob Berney pauses just a split second when asked if his December release "The Orphanage," a gothic chiller sure to send sales of Ambien skyrocketing, might have trouble simultaneously landing younger genre fans and older specialty audiences.
It's a pause that hints at the marketing contradictions faced even by a decorated whiz like Berney, president of Picturehouse Entertainment. The movie's many frightening moments are its biggest selling point to the genre crowd, but will those moments keep the prestige moviegoers away? On the flip side, will the fact that the movie is set in Spain and written entirely in Spanish deter the fanboys?
But then Berney is ready, with his trademark low-key conviction, to tick off the arguments. "I wondered about all that too," he says. "But the New York Film Festival is kind of the blue-hair crowd, and they loved it. And the fact that Guillermo (del Toro) is involved, you just can't underestimate his appeal."
Berney has had little reason to pause during the past decade. Ever since he got on the map in 2001 with "Memento," a modern-day noir that earned $25 million despite a structure so complex it prompted even the New Yorker to call it too smart, he's had a remarkable run.
Previously at IFC and Newmarket, and now as the head of the HBO-New Line venture Picturehouse, Berney has made an art of divining new demos and giving them movies they never even knew they craved — think the evangelicals who flocked to "The Passion of the Christ" or the multigenenerational and immigrant audiences of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
But like a skateboarder trying progressively more difficult tricks, Berney lately has been up to something more ambitious. Instead of just one elusive target, he's tried to find separate audiences who have little in common — and hit all of them at once. Converting a group of reluctant moviegoers, after all, is nice; bringing together disparate constituencies is the more difficult adventure, one that Berney seems to enjoy for its own sake. (Del Toro, who wrote and directed "Pan's Labyrinth" and is exec producing and presenting "Orphanage," says that when Berney first saw "Labyrinth," he so relished the marketing challenge that one of the first things he said to the helmer was, "Oh, this is going to be fun.")
Berney 2.0 reached perhaps its apex last winter with "Labyrinth," a coming-of-age fairy tale that's tinged with violence, technical wizardry and politics, and which aimed simultaneously for fanboys, families, Latinos and specialty moviegoers. It could have missed all four groups. Instead it rolled them together into one gloriously diverse base and rolled up $37 million at the domestic boxoffice, a Spanish-language record.
With "Orphanage," Berney is trying to make lightning strike dos veces. It's more than just an attempt to top his own feat. Despite the strength of "Labyrinth" and the crossover success of the Edith Piaf biopic "La Vie en Rose," 2007 hasn't been entirely kind to Picturehouse. Such critically acclaimed movies as "Rocket Science" and "Starter for 10" failed to crack $1 million at the boxoffice, while the more commercial "El Cantante," the Marc Anthony-Jennifer Lopez salsa pic that was less critically beloved, grossed just $8 million.
If Berney can make "Orphanage" fly, he won't just add a notch to his reputation, he'll essentially prove that the grand experiment that is Picturehouse — which in its 21/2 years has sought to build a specialty powerhouse by combining the grass-roots distribution savvy of Berney with the corporate muscle of Time Warner — is a success.
A supernatural tale set in a baroque house and a gloomy seaside town, "Orphanage" revolves around Laura (Belen Rueda) and her troubled adopted child Simon (Roger Princep), who has apparitions of dead children, then mysteriously disappears. This sends Laura on a frantic search to find him, chasing the phantoms who may haunt her house while also pursuing her own more personal ghosts in a far more emotional and character-driven way than most genre movies ("a strange combination of European and American," in del Toro's phrase).
With echoes not only of "The Sixth Sense," "The Others" and "The Shining" but also diverse films like the troubled-mother pic "Not Without My Daughter" and gothic classics like "Wuthering Heights," "Orphanage" differs in a number of ways from "Labyrinth." But with its conceit of a child who may or may not be seeing what's invisible to everyone else — and its larger themes of lost innocence and unredressed regret — it owes a heavy spiritual debt to that movie.
"Orphanage" also, of course, has a more literal connection to "Labyrinth": the del Toro seal of approval. "Orphanage" is the first movie del Toro has ever presented, and to which he agreed to lend his name on the basis of the script alone. Del Toro served as a mentor and godfather to director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and also helped bring the project to Berney. Although in production on "Hellboy 2" for Universal, he'll also likely make appearances stateside for "Orphanage," campaigning for the multiple audiences that the movie will try to reach.
"I believe there's not such a thing in any market as a foreign film or as an art house film," del Toro says. "Emotionally a movie either tells the story it's supposed to tell or it doesn't. I've seen a lot of art house movies that should have been on 1,000 screens and blockbusters that should have been on 15."
Berney's release strategy is tellingly, almost eerily, similar to "Labyrinth." The exec has decided to open "Orphanage" in the same chancy slot as "Labyrinth" — the week between Christmas and New Year, in which Berney successfully gambled last year that he could outwait all the other fall movies and make a fresh push in January.
"The success of 'Pan's Labyrinth' enables us to have confidence in this film, that the audience will accept a Spanish film in a more genre way," Berney says. "If this was before 'Pan's Labyrinth,' we would have never tried this. I'm not sure if we would have even picked it up."
The two movies are inextricable at the marketing level too. Like "Labyrinth," Berney has built buzz for "Orphanage" with screenings at fanboy convocations like Austin's Fantastic Fest, even as he's taken the prestige route through the Festival de Cannes and the New York Film Festival. ("Orphanage" is unlikely to garner the six Oscar noms of "Labyrinth," though the film is Spain's official foreign-language selection.) A Blu-ray Disc release of "Labyrinth" during the holidays will promote "Orphanage."
But if "Labyrinth" smoothed the way for "Orphanage," the success of that movie has also emboldened Berney. The distribution experts will make a more aggressive push for this movie than he made for "Labyrinth" — maybe more aggressive, he says, than any of his previous releases. The man who perfected the art of the platform rollout will be going wide early and quickly. In its first three weekends, "Labyrinth" branched out to 600 theaters, a respectable pace for any foreign film. In that same span, "Orphanage" will ramp up to 1,000.
And then there is the marketing budget, which sources say will start at $12 million, large for most specialty pics but astronomical for a foreign-language film. (Among the accouterments is "SimonIsMissing.com," a studio-style stealth Web campaign based on the missing child of the movie.) "He's not just trying to replicate the 'Pan's Labyrinth' model but push it," del Toro says. "He's saying, 'Let's go harder.' "
Berney's release campaigns have caught the attention of rivals not only because of his batting average but also because he flouts so much of the conventional wisdom. The exec bought "Orphanage" at Berlin in February after seeing just about eight minutes of promo footage.
"Bob is rare because he's close to the exhibition and close to the talent, so he's in a perfect position to know both what the movie really is about and what an audience wants," says Belen Atienza of Spanish banner Telecinco, also a producer on "Orphanage."
But turning "Orphanage" into a hit might also be one of his biggest challenges. Matt Dentler, the SXSW film festival chief and Austin fixture who has been part of Berney grass-roots campaigns going back to "Memento," says he thinks "Orphanage" will in some ways be an easier sell because it doesn't cross as many genres as "Labyrinth." But he also thinks it will run up against other obstacles.
"Guillermo has been developing a fan base for over a decade, and that was something 'Labyrinth' had in its favor," Dentler said. " 'The Orphanage' is a first-time writer and first-time director. People are going to go in to see actors they don't know. It will have to be much more of a discovery process."
The movie also faces marketing challenges that "Labyrinth" never knew. Where "Labyrinth" could use its imaginative special effects to play to the Comic-Con set and families at the same time, the obvious campaign for "Orphanage" splits the audience. Play up the spooky and older viewers might stay away, but make it seem too character-driven and you could lose genre fans. While the trailer in Spain — where two weeks ago the movie had an $8 million opening weekend, the second-best ever for a Spanish movie — leaned cerebral, Berney says he'll emphasize the thrills and hope word-of-mouth makes up the difference.
In the end, though, Berney admits that all the crafty marketing in the world only goes so far. "What happened with 'Pan's' gave me confidence and also raised my expectations in a way," he says. "I don't know how this will turn out. Hopefully lightning will strike twice."