Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard accepted the Spirit of Independence Award Monday at the Los Angeles Film Festival and discussed their paths into the industry as well as the relevance of foreign films on younger audiences.
The recipients participated in a panel at L.A. Live to discuss one of the company’s biggest successes — the 2000 film “.” At the time of its release, the film grossed more than $213.5 million worldwide.
Despite its huge box office success, being the most successful foreign film of all time and wining over 40 awards — including the foreign language film Oscar — “Crouching Tiger” never made it to the top spot.
The film’s screenwriter James Schamus and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee joined Barker and Bernard. Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Film Festival David Ansen moderated the panel.
Barker and Bernard, who have more than 20 years of experience acquiring and distributing foreign films such as “Talk To Her” and “Lunchbox”, said that there is still a strong market and audience for these projects.
“You’ll find the top foreign films right now are doing better than ever before,” Barker said. “The problems are the smaller ones. They’re more difficult than ever before.”
However, the panelists said they found foreign films to be the most rewarding projects. Barker and Bernard discussed their hands-on approach to selecting the foreign films they want to purchase. They said many times they act on a feeling — as was the case for “Crouching Tiger.”
The film, which stars Yun-Fat Chow and Michelle Yeoh, tells the ancient story about the love shared between, and the responsibilities of, martial arts fighters during China’s Qing Dynasty. The film’s dialogue is in Mandarin.
The SPC co-presidents said they focus on selecting films that relate with a wide array of audiences and can make an impact. Barker said he realized the unique ability film has to achieve this goal after seeing the Czech film “The Shop on Main Street” when he was 11.
“I found out what the Holocaust was from watching that film. I think one of the reasons I’m attached to all of these foreign language films and these great ideas is because I learned about life from them,” Barker said.
“It was very easy to do that because I didn’t have to read,” he added jokingly. “I could just sit and watch.”
In the same way, Bernard said that his interest was piqued as a teenager after seeing “Tom Jones,” a film that roused an emotional reaction from adults in his Texas hometown.
Bernard said, “I remember saying ‘I like film. It’s going to have a real effect on the world. I want to be a part of it.’”
On the production side, Lee said making the international hit was an opportunity to take himself outside of his element.
“I’m used to making movies that make women cry,” said the film’s director, who would go on to make “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi.” “I never did a martial arts movie before.”
Instead of vividly writing out and describing martial arts scenes, Schamus and Lee gave the characters the simple direction of ‘they fight.’
Lee, who described his movies as being “influenced by all cultures,” said he believes a good story transcends language. Subtitles do not deter younger audiences away.
“I don’t think anyone under the age of seven has an issue with subtitles,” Lee told Variety. “Many young people are accustomed to using their brains at all times. That’s becoming more common.”
The film was screened after the panel. Following the screening, guests were treated to cocktails and appetizers.