Sony Pictures Classics at 20
“We just stick to our knitting and do our work,” says Michael Barker.
It may not be the sexiest way to describe the secret of succeeding in the specialized film business, but for Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Barker and Tom Bernard, that steadfast approach has translated to 20 strong years with the company they founded — and SPC’s best year in a decade, thanks to such hits as “Midnight in Paris” and “The Guard.”
Far from being outmoded, it’s the company’s consistency that has made it the longest-standing studio division in the field, ratcheting up four best picture nominations, 10 foreign-language Oscar winners and more than 40 movies that have exceeded $5 million at the domestic box office.
Among the company’s “fundamentals,” according to Barker and Bernard, are to release movies “cost-effectively,” “tailor-release every picture” and be “guided by the filmmakers.”
Indeed, SPC has built up a loyal crop of auteurs it has cultivated over the years, working with Pedro Almodovar and Zhang Yimou some 10 times each, Woody Allen four times and David Mamet, Errol Morris, Atom Egoyan and John Sayles three times each.
“The relationships that we have forged with exhibitors over the last 30 years have also been very important for our success,” adds Barker.
Sony Classics would also not have been possible without its parent company’s support.
Sony Corp. CEO Howard Stringer praises the company for bringing “relationships with some of the brightest stars of filmmaking,” he says, noting SPC’s Barker and Bernard are also “consistently profitable for Sony, and at the same time they elevate the Sony brand.”
“The pictures they release are the most stunning in this business,” concurs Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chairman of Sony Pictures. “We are so proud to have them in the family.”
Sony Pictures Entertainment topper Michael Lynton specifically lauds Barker and Bernard for their “remarkable tenacity,” as well as their “business acumen, deep relationships and phenomenal taste.”
For Barker, big Sony has always understood SPC’s core business. “It’s not about winning the weekend and not about instantaneous cash-flow,” he says. “It’s about the value in the long term.”
“One of the great assets of being around for 20 years is that the proof is in the pudding,” continues Barker. “We have about 350 titles in our library that continue to keep giving.”
Barker and Bernard also credit Sony for giving them autonomy.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on being able to move fast,” says Bernard, “so when (we) go in to see a film, we can walk out the door and buy it. You need to have that leanness and flexibility.”
For “Midnight in Paris,” for example, they moved the wide-release date up two weeks and went broader than initially planned, “responding to the movie as it was happening,” Barker says.
SPC has also had to adapt to a changing industry. If the theatrical market has always been their top priority, now they are more involved in understanding every ancillary outlet. “Piracy has made us totally in sync with all the other pieces at Sony,” says Barker. “In this day and age, you have to pay attention to all the revenue streams to stay alive.”
But while other companies are increasingly turning to video on demand, Bernard maintains that the day-and-date strategy is a “lost opportunity,” eating into other eventual revenue and limiting a film’s theatrical exposure. “From our research, you’re giving up quite a bit,” he says.
Still, SPC has embraced new media to reach their audiences.
“Social media has allowed us to target the market directly,” says Bernard, citing such diverse examples as their ability to tap Catholic audiences for “Of Gods and Men” and the psychiatric community for “A Dangerous Method.”
Countering the suggestion that SPC movies are for a graying audience, Bernard points to the Facebook page for “Midnight in Paris,” which has more than 222,000 “likes” and nearly 15,000 discussants.
“A lot of movies that we have connect to that younger generation,” says Bernard, “but the question is when do you get them to absorb the film? Sometimes, it takes longer.”
SPC, always patient, will be waiting.
Classics co-prexies Barker and Bernard suggest four ways to keep specialized film thriving
- Encourage universities to revive and continue film departments.
- Encourage film organizations like IFP and FIND to share more information with filmmakers, offer archives of panels and roundtables and make this information more available to empower filmmakers.
- Encourage the media to value film criticism and give those voices a place to be heard.
- Organizations like IFP, FIND and festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and New York need to step up and talk about why it’s important to prevent piracy. These organizations have not come together on this point, and the fact that the indie industry has not taken a stand on piracy is outrageous. Because it will lead to our demise.
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