Renewed vows

Sony Classics reups Barker, Bernard

CANNES — Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have extended their contract for another five-year term, consolidating the specialty chiefs’ 13-year relationship with parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment after a particularly strong year at the domestic box office.

Renewal underscores the stability of SPC at a time of flux for other key players in the specialty arena.

The tense contract renegotiations of Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein with Disney have sparked speculation that the brothers may ankle the Mouse House to set up a new shingle. Meanwhile, the sale of MGM is under discussion, creating uncertainty over the future of United Artists.

Warners is ramping up its own specialty division, Warner Independent Pictures, which will bow its debut release this summer; DreamWorks’ specialty label Go Fish is starting small, announcing only one project thus far; while New Line’s arthouse arm, Fine Line Features, has only recently bounced back from a period of inactivity thanks to its distrib pact with HBO Films.

“The autonomy we’ve been given at Sony over the last 13 years was key to our decision to continue,” Bernard told Daily Variety. “Being able to adjust and be part of a corporate culture is extremely important to survival in the specialty business.”

“The last several years have been very successful for Sony Classics,” Barker added. “Our revenues have greatly increased in international distribution, in the DVD and TV arenas, and we’ve expanded our slate to release 15 to 20 movies a year. There’s a lot to be said for being in one place for a long time because all the Sony entities have served our product well.”

Formed in 1991 by Barker, Bernard and former partner Marcie Bloom, SPC has released some 200 films, accruing 77 Oscar noms and 19 wins during its run. The company’s most profitable release has been “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which grossed $128 million in North America.

SPC hits from the past year include Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” and birdlife docu “Winged Migration,” both of which grossed more than $10 million domestically, as well as Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning docu “The Fog of War” and French Oscar-nominated toon “The Triplets of Belleville.”

‘True pioneers’

“Michael and Tom are true pioneers when it comes to specialized film acquisition, marketing and distribution,” said Michael Lynton, chairman-chief exec of SPE. “Over the years they have built an independent powerhouse, and we are counting on them to continue to grow and expand their business as the market for targeted films evolves.”

SPC has established itself as the leader in the North American market for upscale foreign-language titles, mixing in with English-language indies, documentaries and animation.

Expanding from its initial base in acquisitions, the company has significantly beefed up its participation in co-productions, with upcoming releases such as Istvan Szabo’s “Being Julia,” James Ivory’s “The White Countess” and Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me.” It also has boosted its script-stage pre-buys like Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” which kicked off the Cannes fest Wednesday night.

“The marketplace now is more competitive than it’s been in years, and when that happens, you need to get more involved in the production stage of pictures,” Bernard said.

The company has forged relationships over a number of pictures with filmmakers including Morris, Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Woody Allen, Guillermo del Toro, David Mamet, Robert Altman and John Sayles.

Distrib also helped launch a number of careers, distributing the first features of Todd Solondz, Sally Potter, Neil LaBute, Tom Tykwer, Christopher Guest and Don Roos.

Focus on filmmakers

“The main reason we have survived and been successful and thrived is because of filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar, who have delivered for us time and time again,” Barker said. “Filmmakers have always been the driving force behind Sony Classics.”

SPC will release “Bad Education” — the distrib’s fifth pic from the helmer — in the U.S. on Nov. 19, the same pre-Thanksgiving Friday slot in which the distrib bowed the director’s “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her.”

Other upcoming releases for the company include surfing doc “Riding Giants,” Brazilian prison drama “Carandiru,” Italian B.O. hit “Facing Windows” and gay-themed Canadian pic “Touch of Pink.”