Sony's Steve Bersch on Taking Over Screen Gems and the State of Indie Filmmaking

Steve Bersch - Photographed by Michele Thomas - H 2018
Photographed by Michele Thomas

Hot off negotiating a slew of deals at Sundance, the veteran film exec talked to THR about his busy festival and the future of Sony's surprising most profitable division.

It’s an impressive stat that comes with a small asterisk: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions president Steve Bersch, 61, is said to run the most profitable division within the studio. The caveat is that with just 20 employees, SPWA doesn’t carry the same overhead as, say, Columbia Pictures, given that it is not a releasing entity. Still, during his 10-year stint, SPWA boasts films such as Arrival, the Insidious franchise, Spotlight, Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Don’t Breathe and the upcoming Tom Hanks-starring Greyhound. On Jan. 19, Bersch’s purview expanded even further when he took the reins of Screen Gems following the announcement that Clint Culpepper was exiting after a 28-year run at the genre label. 

There was little time to celebrate considering that Bersch was busy negotiating a slew of deals on the ground at Sundance, where he acquired worldwide rights to the John Cho internet thriller Search for $5 million, and all international rights to Debra Granik’s drama Leave No Trace and the Nick Offerman-led Hearts Beat Loud. The company had previously nabbed a wide swath of international territories for Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, which was well reviewed after its Sundance premiere. Bersch, a Berkeley grad (“I’m a long-suffering Cal fan”) and father of two, talked to THR about his busy festival, the most profitable SPWA film and Screen Gems’ future.

Now that you are in charge of both Screen Gems and SPWA, will they remain autonomous?

Yeah. They’ll remain autonomous divisions. I don’t look at SPWA as a releasing label. SPWA does operate under the Stage 6 label for our higher-profile stuff, only because we didn’t think “Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions” was a very good label to put on a movie to consumers. Screen Gems obviously will be more focused on development and production — SPWA being more of an indie-focused label, working with independent producers on either productions or acquisitions.

How will Screen Gems change under your leadership?

I think that’s going to evolve, but I’m not sure it will change. Screen Gems will fill a valuable role as a lower- and modestly budgeted production division for targeted audiences. We’re not going to try to be Columbia, pursuing large tentpole movies for a wide, wide audience. TriStar is more of a dramatic, adult-oriented, literature-oriented division. There’s a great space for Screen Gems to operate, not only in the horror and urban spaces where it has been successful, but Clint had success in other modestly budgeted targeted movies, from Easy A to The Vow to other movies that might not feel like big Columbia/TriStar movies. Certainly, I’m not looking to make $100 million movies.

How will SPWA and Stage 6 be distinct from Screen Gems?

Stage 6 operates within SPWA. I think SPWA’s going to continue doing what it’s doing, making and acquiring interesting and adventurous movies. There is some overlap with Screen Gems product, be it Insidious or Don’t Breathe or The Call — many of which could be released under the Screen Gems banner. But it’s a different group of executives who’ve had great success, and I think will continue to pursue what they’ve been doing. As an acquisition entity, SPWA has branched out to higher-budget [fare] by acquiring most of the international rights to Arrival, which is certainly not a genre movie, and we’ll continue to do things like that.

Arrival made more money overseas than it did domestically. Why didn’t Paramount take that gamble?

I have no idea. We were circling the movie at Cannes several years ago. We were looking to take the world on the movie, and then we heard Paramount had stepped up and bought U.S., Canada and China. By the time we moved, we took everything off the table that we could. 

What has been the most profitable SPWA film to date for you?

Recently, Don’t Breathe [2016] was extremely profitable for us. It was a sub-$10 million movie, which did about $160 million at the box office. It also helped bring Fede Alvarez to the studio. He’s now doing the Girl in the Spider’s Web movie [for Columbia]. That picture was a success all the way around.

How would you characterize the state of indie filmmaking right now?

It’s as robust as I’ve ever seen it. There has been a huge infusion of capital and high-net-worth individuals coming into the space. There’s some great independent pictures being made. It feels like it’s very healthy. We’re all challenged by the market economics, the streaming services and people not going to theaters as much, but the state of the industry from a production and a creative perspective is probably at an all-time high. 

Does the old adage that so-called “black” movies don’t play overseas still hold?

I don’t think that’s consistently true. Movies that speak to a uniquely American experience don’t play overseas. Evangelical Christian movies, as opposed to biblical movies, might be more American. Sports movies don’t play, baseball movies especially. A lot of dialogue-driven comedies don’t play because it’s more American in the humor. So I think to the extent that African-American movies speak to a more Americanized experience, they won’t play. But I’m sure you can find numerous movies with largely African-American casts that have played big. Get Out played well overseas, because I don’t think it spoke to a uniquely American experience.

Do you ever trade notes or wind up competing with Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard at festivals?

We wouldn’t compete, but we certainly talk to them and coordinate with them all the time. Whiplash was an example where [pre-Sundance] we had bought a significant percentage of international, and then they came in at the festival and bought domestic rights and most of the remaining international rights. They’ve released a number of movies that we’ve bought either at festivals or otherwise, like Austenland, which we bought at Sundance. Sometimes we buy pictures in concert with them, sometimes buying international where they then stepped up for domestic, and sometimes buying pictures that they then agreed to distribute for us. There’s a wide variety of ways we can work with our sister division.

You are one of the only high-level executives to survive the Sony hack. What was the fallout for you? 

I don’t know how much of my personal information was out there because I didn’t want to know. I signed up for the Cadillac version of LifeLock for myself and my kids. I think everybody’s more careful with what they put in writing. Doing less by email and more by phone is far more efficient anyway. We have a great workspace here where we’re all contained on a floor, and I’m on my feet all the time in other people’s offices because I find face-to-face communication far more effective in getting things done.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.