Sony Classics co-chief gets big results from modest movies

Independent film companies in Hollywood tend to be short-lived — but there are exceptions. After more than two decades, Sony Pictures Classics is still run by its founders and co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker (fellow founder/president Marcie Bloom retired from the company). Together, they’ve proven that a foreign or subtitled film can still earn $100 million-plus at the box office (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and that little indies can garner big Oscar attention (“Capote”). This season, SPC is positioning “Rust and Bone” and “Amour,” among others, for Oscar love. Bernard spoke with Randee Dawn about how small fish can still make a big splash, and why he’s happy to remain independent — just not independent all on his own.

Randee Dawn: It’s been 21 years since SPC opened its doors. What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in the industry?

Tom Bernard: The Internet. That and the fact that the national theater chains now have dedicated marketing departments for specialized indie product. Newspaper (ad) prices have gone down dramatically, and that was a big expense. Now (on the major-studio side) it’s all about the number of slots you have every year to release your movie; you have anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 screens for two weeks, and that’s where you make your money. But it’s great for us, because we are counterprogramming the studio blockbuster, and there’s a huge audience that’s still in the moviegoing habit and likes smart movies, and they go every week. Another change is that the subtitle barrier is gone; the Internet has trained younger audiences to process several things on the same screen. And older people are more comfortable with subtitles because of the scrolls on every news channel. Now you can do $139 million with a subtitled movie — that’s beyond a specialized audience.

RD: How do you market a film like “Amour” to audiences outside New York and Los Angeles?

TB: We advertise in newspapers. The people who read newspapers are, the majority of them, 50 and up, so that’s a key demographic audience. There are more ears and eyes on PBS and latenight TV, so that’s a key component where money is spent. Then you need to get the trailers attached to the right films in theaters. We do a matrix of online advertising so when people look for something to do on the weekend, we’re there. And we tour the director in a lot of key cities; we get syndicated articles that we can plug in around the country. And film festivals, they’re key.

RD: How do you hold down marketing costs while still aiming for a wide reach?

TB: We’re constantly on top of where we’re at in the release of a film, adjusting our spending accordingly. It’s important to play a movie all over the country. We’ll play every market that exists for specialized product for the film, because that furthers the ancillary part of the film’s release, and creates awareness you can’t buy. If there’s a review in every market, a movie gets on people’s radar. A film doesn’t have the same cachet if it never gets into a theater, and we want our movies to be lasting in terms of their reputation.

RD: Are there any secrets to marketing a foreign film in awards season?

TB: It changes every month, every year. There’s no formula. The thing about an Oscar campaign is that the most important part is to get people to see your movie. So every year you’re trying to figure out how to get people to see the film, whether in the theater, or (on) DVD.

RD: SPC often releases European art films. But there’s been a surge in foreign, indie-financed blockbusters. Does that change the landscape for you?

TB: Certainly, there are more commercial films, and these films tell stories that work. A Lebanese film we had, “Where Do We Go Now,” broke records in that country; “Rust and Bone” was a blockbuster in France. They’ve always been doing that, financed movies that are commercial films. Money has no country.

RD: After 20 years, do you feel like there’s a strong brand in Sony Pictures Classics?

TB: We’ve branded our movies. Michael and I don’t have a pipeline of movies that we’ve got to put out that aren’t (up to our) standards. Any movie you see with Sony Classics’ logo on it, you’ll find interesting and worthwhile. You may not like it, but you won’t feel you’ve wasted your time.

This is a business we wanted to be in; we didn’t want to move into the studio machine. In the 1980s and 1990s, many companies were very similar, but now I don’t think any one company is the same as another. They all have different plans and motivations. We don’t have a universal answer, but we’re the only ones doing it this way.

RD: Would you ever consider your own shingle at some point?

TB: We could have done that long ago, but everyone who has their own shingle seems to go out of business. If you look at the marketplace, the hero of the independents is not Harvey Weinstein, it’s Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema. Bob started in the early 1970s doing specialized product, exploitation pictures. He took his company to the pinnacle, where they made the Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) trilogy and won the Oscar. We feel more comfortable being in the studio system so we can ensure everyone we do business with gets paid. It’s much better to have Sony Home Entertainment working with you on distribution of your movie than to have to make an outside deal where you end up buying your way into Sony Entertainment. We feel we have the best of both worlds. The studio doesn’t want one kind of thing only, so we add to the variety of the studio. We add to the mix.

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