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Michael Barker & Tom Bernard
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” did little to change the way Sony Pictures Classics’ toppers do business: small films, slow roll-outs, with grosses that average $1 million. Energetic buyers of foreign-lingo titles, they took in $10 million for “Talk to Her,” which underperformed in director Pedro Almodovar’s native Spain. And SPC’s campaigning gleaned three Oscar noms and Almodovar the screenplay kudo. Company’s riding the crest of a docu wave with “Winged Migration.” “We don’t really compete with the marketplace,” says Bernard, whom one rival distributor described as going after some films with the aggression of a hockey player. “We go after pictures and make deals that will make our money back. We’ve never lost money on a picture we didn’t buy.”

Eamonn Bowles
After the Shooting Gallery imploded in 2001, Bowles, known for steering the company’s Film Series, landed firmly on his feet at new distrib-exhib Magnolia Pictures. He’s since brought the same discerning taste and down-to-earth work ethic to Magnolia’s releases. Case in point: over $3 million in ticket sales for controversial doc “Capturing the Friedmans.” And as the front-man for garage band the Martinets, Bowles brings to his business a similar rock ‘n’ roll spirit. “I like the looseness of an independent company,” he says. “By keeping the scale down, it gives us a lot of artistic freedom.”

Bernd Eichinger
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Germany’s uber indie survived the collapse of the Neuer Markt and Bernd Eichinger’s label, Constantin, remains Germany’s strongest indie distributor. Among his recent crop of co-productions is the Oscar-winning “Nowhere in Africa,” which Constantin also released in Germany. His credo: “You learn nothing from a failure. When a film is a flop, I forget about it immediately. I learn from watching other films — it’s a constant learning process. Every doctor has to regularly keep up with the medical journals and follow new developments. I have to do that too.”

Nancy Gerstman & Emily Russo
“The indie world is all about the challenge,” says Russo, co-partner of boutique distrib-on-the-rise Zeitgeist Films. The born-and-bred New Yorkers and auteur aficionados have approached the tribulations of specialized releasing by being “super-conscientious, impeccably honest, and very devoted,” adds Russo. This year, they celebrated Zeitgeist’s 15-year anniversary with their first Academy Award for German pic “Nowhere in Africa,” which grossed over $5 million Stateside. “We started with passion and energy,” says Russo, “and with a bigger staff and expanding resources, those are still the most important elements.”

Nigel & Trevor Green
The brothers Green like to play their cards very close to the vest. But the sheer scale of their U.K. success is thrusting them ever more firmly into the public eye. Having achieved a 16% marketshare in 2002, unprecedented for a Brit indie distrib, they have become part-owners of Odeon Cinemas, the U.K.’s largest circuit, and are stepping up their investment in production. Nigel Green has even allowed himself to be talked into joining the board of the U.K. Film Council. Next up: posing for publicity photos.

Samuel & Victor Hadida
Compared to other French indie distribs, the Hadida brothers have always been unusually oriented toward populist fare, whether from France or Hollywood. This lack of pretension paid off in spades when they co-produced “The Brotherhood of the Wolf” and pre-bought “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While their rivals have all been dragged down by the problems at Canal Plus, the Hadidas are reinvesting their windfall to make a big push into international production, with pics such as “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” and “Solomon Kane.”

David Koh & Ryan Werner
Thanks to the overtime put in by execs David Koh and Ryan Werner, Palm Pictures — Chris Blackwell’s idiosyncratic music-and-movie label — has become a new home for both wizened auteurs and edgy up-and-comers. Recently, the company released the daunting “Cremaster Cycle,” Asian shocker “The Eye” and Claude Berri’s “The Housekeeper,” with more to come from French vets Claude Chabrol and Olivier Assayas. Hired by Koh for his youth and vitality, Werner credits his distribution savvy to his previous employers: “From Eamonn Bowles, I learned how to do things cheaply and effectively, and from Liz Manne, I learned how to deal with filmmakers on a personal and meaningful level.”

Bert Manzari
Exhibition vet Manzari, exec VP of the 185-screen-and-growing Landmark Theatres chain, continues to impact the specialized distribution business that he helped foment “for more years than I’d care to admit,” he quips. With the opening of the Sunshine Cinema in downtown Gotham last year, Landmark is shifting the balance of power in North America’s most important arthouse market away from long-time top grosser, the Angelika Film Center. “We’ve been trying to get into New York for the last 10 years,” says the widely admired exec. “And we’re glad to finally be there.”

Bingham Ray
Nearly two years after taking the reins at United Artists and relocating the company to New York, indie stalwart Ray continues to deliver for parent company MGM. “Bowling for Columbine” justified its high pricetag by making hay at the B.O. and picking up doc honors at the Oscars and the Spirits. Upcoming slate includes Sundance bidding-war pickup “Pieces of April” and Michael Winterbottom’s buzzed-about “Code 46.”

Jeff Sackman & Mark Urman
Former Lions Gate execs found an investor in Robert Lantos, who bought 50% of their less than 2-year-old indie distrib ThinkFilm in January. Company made its first major mark with boffo returns on the Oscar-nominated doc “Spellbound,” which could hit $5 million. Former publicist Urman, who works the press like a master, says his relentless pre-release screening sked was “more than four times the number of any film I’ve ever worked on.” Company also hopes to expand into production. “We would like to grow to a point beyond which we don’t want to grow,” says Urman. “We want to work and live the way we like by staying hands-on and maintaining control.”