Time Warner has indie spirit

With Berney aboard, HBO and New Line seek out niche riches

The article was updated at 8:14 PST

Suddenly, the indie film world has an important new player.

Newmarket Films’ Bob Berney will be at the helm of a new entity backed by New Line and HBO.

Deal marks a major foray by Time Warner into the indie arena — and slams the door on Paramount’s efforts to reinvent its indie presence.

In the newly announced company, Berney will report to HBO Films prexy Colin Callender and New Line co-chairman Michael Lynne. In signing Berney, New Line and HBO acquired Newmarket’s theatrical distribution unit from co-founders William Tyrer and Chris Ball.

Deal effectively shutters Fine Line, which has served as New Line’s indie arm.

HBO chairman Chris Albrecht noted that both the pay cabler and New Line intended to expand their investments in this arena. “The opportunity to bring all these elements together was one that couldn’t be passed up,” he said.

Berney will have the discretion to acquire pics; handle marketing and distribution of films from New Line as well as from HBO Films, which develops and produces for the paybox; and distribute theatrically.

Execs apparently rushed to announce the acquisition in hopes of forestalling speculation that surrounded previous talks Newmarket had held with Paramount, as well as to indicate corporate parent Time Warner’s serious intentions in the indie sector.

The dealmakers would not disclose financial aspects of the pact. But since New Line and HBO basically bought Berney — leaving Newmarket’s film finance arm and library with Tyrer and Ball — the deal is likely not to be a financial strain for the studios, which financed it with their own cash after gaining approval from TW corporate brass.

“This wasn’t some $100 million deal,” said one exec close to the negotiations.

Unit, which will be given a new name, will operate out of New York with Berney and staff he brings over from Newmarket, Fine Line and HBO.

New Line and HBO Films also plan to jointly finance pics to be distributed by Berney’s shingle.

Deal apparently came together rapidly. New Line and HBO were already in talks about joining forces for a new label, while HBO was separately talking to Newmarket about the indie distrib taking on its homevideo and pay TV operations. Once it became clear that Berney would be available, the companies quickly changed tacks to bring him on board through an acquisition.

No decisions have been made as to which HBO, Fine Line and Newmarket employees will stay with the new division, though it’s likely that only some will. Berney will have discretion to decide who joins him.

When word of the Newmarket deal got out Wednesday, the jitters set in at Fine Line, where the unit’s eight staffers were worried about cuts. Staffers at Warner Independent also had reason to wonder about TW’s new corporate priorities.

While Callender insisted he has been pleased with the Fine Line partnership in the past, HBO has apparently been itching to exercise more control over its pics, which helped lead to the current deal.

HBO Films first unveiled its domestic theatrical distribution pact with Fine Line less than two years ago, appointing United Artists marketing VP Dennis O’Connor to oversee its theatrical distrib.

O’Connor’s role with the new venture is unclear.

Several other indie shingles in Hollywood are rumored to have talked to Berney about joining them in the past few months.

Newmarket co-founders Tyrer and Ball will keep operating the remaining Newmarket assets as an independent film company.

“We will continue to release sophisticated, interesting fare, perhaps more geared to independent fare,” Ball said.

Execs said they haven’t yet decided whether they’ll hire a replacement for Berney, who is known for his association with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y tu mama tambien,” as well as “The Passion of the Christ.”

Newmarket’s current slate of pics will likely be released via the new New Line-HBO venture. They include Lawrence Bender-produced “The Chumscubber,” Swedish helmer Lukas Moodysson’s gritty “A Hole in My Heart” and the kiddie rock docu “Rock School.”

(Claude Brodesser, Dana Harris and Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.)

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