London Film Fest: Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker Talks Day-and-Date Releases, Patience

Jessica Chou
Michael Barker

Kicking off the Film London Production Finance Market, the co-president also discusses a possible return of big studios to lower-budget fare and the importance of casting.

LONDON – Sony Pictures Classics co-president and co-founder Michael Barker talked about the importance of keeping an eye on all revenue streams through a movie's release life, the value of patience and what part a cast plays in the films released by Sony's specialty division.

Barker, delivering the annual Film London Production Finance Market keynote address to 200-plus delegates and industry members, said SPC's strategy was to distribute and produce movies a big studio would not do and create a catalog of output that stands the test of time and is still generating revenues years after its movies are released in theaters.

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"You have to pay attention to every revenue stream [for your film]," Barker said. "Our survival has a lot do with paying attention to all the revenue streams."

Speaking exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter following the event, Barker told THR that SPC currently runs each movie through several different revenue models before being committing to a project.

But he emphasized that SPC always maintained a conservative approach to revenue projections and had survived and thrived amid the rollercoaster ups and downs in the indie sector over the last 15 years.

Barker also told THR that being patient and allowing a movie to build an audience through word-of-mouth helped create "the legend" of a movie.

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He cited examples such as Searching For Sugarman, which played in theaters for a year, and Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, which spent 10 months on the big screen, as movies that benefited from being long players.

While he acknowledged the growing pressure building from consumers to make movies available on other platforms as the films rollout in theaters, Barker firmly advocated patience.

"Day-and-date releases would not have created the profile a movie achieves from word of mouth in the theaters," Barker told THR. "But it is essential to acknowledge the power and value of [ancillary] markets for a film."

During his address Barker also said he thought there might be a return by the major studios to making films with budgets in the $30 million to $70 million range, a project category that has largely fallen by the wayside as studios concentrate on tentpole pictures, franchises and big-budget sequels.

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For SPC, Barker's working budget range is "from $500,000 to $10 million" but the budget of a movie is "never a consideration" when deciding whether to work with a filmmaker, whom SPC always gives final cut.

"We let the filmmaker guide the whole process," Barker said. "We only step in when they call to ask for advice or go over budget."

Barker said he could only recall one occasion when a filmmaker had gone over budget while at SPC and also noted that there had only been one filmmaker who had never made a call to get some feedback on what they were doing. "I think we are so careful that [going over budget] doesn't happen like it may do at the big studios," he explained.

Barker said it was up to the director to decide on casting too and pointed to Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway, as a film that had broken SPC's budget ceiling but had gotten through because Demme wanted the actress.

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"We wouldn't make a decision based on cast," Barker said.

But he also noted: "The older I get the more I see the importance of cast and editing is becoming for success."

Barker said he was "waiting" to see if SPC would land North American rights to Woody Allen's freshly titled Magic In Moonlight, as SPC sees his latest Blue Jasmine with Cate Blanchett approach $35 million at the U.S. box office.

And he also told THR that the Megan Ellison-produced true-crime drama Foxcatcher -- starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo -- would be released in early 2014.

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His address was quickly followed by an appearance on a film finance forum alongside Endgame Entertainment chief Doug Hansen and U.S.-based exhibition, finance and production banner Start Motion Pictures founder Ben Browning.

When asked about the impact of piracy on the indie business, Barker said it was the most important question of the day.

He said there was no doubt piracy was hurting the business, citing SPC's release of James Toback's Tyson documentary, which was scheduled for release in the U.S. after the U.K. rollout.

"It was being streamed in America before our U.S. release," Barker told THR. "We had it taken down, but the damage had been done and that killed our [theatrical] business on that."

Barker said that provided a wake-up call to the importance of coordinating release dates with other distributors.

He also said that a decision to not send out any screeners for Midnight in Paris, forcing critics and the media to go to theaters and screening rooms, had paid off with no pirate activity on that title.

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"We're doing the same with Blue Jasmine and it's working," Barker told THR.

Hansen, whose company backed last year's Looper, noted that while the distribution business is global now, he would still want to ink deals on a territory-by-territory basis.

Hansen noted that coordinating rollouts across the various territories was hard but a good way of reducing piracy.

Browning said that the rise of digital filmmaking and the proliferation of content will ultimately have to adhere to the same rules as everything else, high budget or not.

"Just because it is cheap doesn't mean it has to be made," Browning said, noting that the quality of the content has to be high to gain traction. 

There was a call for social media to become even more social, with the audience and panelists alike theorizing that sharing people's viewing habits across the industry would provide an unprecedented level of insight into what content people want rather than what is being thrust at them.

Taking place over two days in association with the 57th BFI London Film Festival, this year’s PFM will see 52 producers and 57 financiers from the international marketplace conducting more than 800 meetings.