THR honors Sony Classics heads


The recipients of The Hollywood Reporter's first annual Indie Mogul Award -- which was created to recognize the continued growth of the independent film arena and to celebrate the achievements of prominent executives with a reputation for producing and releasing quality indie features -- Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have been bringing the best of both American independent cinema and foreign film to the screen for more than 25 years. First at UA Classics, then Orion Classics and, for the past 15 years as co-heads of Sony Pictures Classics, they have worked with a who's who of international filmmakers -- from Pedro Almodovar to Zhang Yimou. While other distributors have come and gone during that time, Barker and Bernard have remained steady and disciplined, carefully nurturing each film they release and garnering more than their share of both critical and boxoffice victories in the process. Following, they reflect on the course of their career.

Michael Barker: Our mentors and guiding lights were the people that actually re-created United Artists as early as 1952: Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow. It was an auteurist-driven company that believed in the independent producer and independent director. They had moved on to Orion when we were at UA, but that auteurist mentality remained at UA and was perfect for what we wanted to do. The business was changing. In the '60s and the '70s, a lot of the same people at the studios were distributing the specialized films as well as the mainstream movies, but it was obvious there were different economics at stake. We wanted to emphasize that by doing it in a different way.

Tom Bernard: The only thing that specialty divisions have in common is the name "specialty division." Each one is very unique, and our style has remained the same. Our mission is to release quality movies from around the world. The key word is quality. We buy movies that we like, that fit the Sony Pictures Classics brand. It's a brand where you can't describe what the movie is going to be, but you can expect a certain quality.

Barker: What we're doing now is a bigger and better version (of what we've always done), changing with the marketplace and the times. We try to stick with the idea of working with so-called masters as well as new American filmmakers. The way our business has changed is we're becoming more and more involved with production early on, but the key is to have the most eclectic slate possible that is an alternative to the big studio movie. We will always have American independent films, documentaries, foreign-language films, but our goal is to reach the widest audience possible in a cost-effective way.

Bernard: The movies we release (are) more mainstream than they were 15 years ago -- 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" grossed $130 million (domestically) -- and that makes them more valuable in the ancillary marketplace, and it complements a lot of the output deals with have at Sony. With DVD shelf space now, we're in the front of the store.

Barker: These films will keep on giving long after their theatrical release because we're creating a library that keeps giving. Our goal is not to come up with a film that makes most of its money on its opening weekend or its first DVD release. The real value (exists) in creating a library of quality films over time.

Bernard: One of the keys to our success over the years has been adapting to the marketplace. Right now, the market says there are not a lot of movies available (for acquisition) in a finished state, so we're now changing and making more movies rather than picking up films in postproduction.

Barker: (At SPC), we might have started with a slate of eight films a year. Now, we have a slate that ranges from 16-22. We've become more involved in co-production, and we're producing more ourselves. Instead of producing one or two (projects), we'll produce four or five. Instead of co-producing two or three, it will be six or eight. But the content goal hasn't changed. We're going for quality, and that comes in many different guises.