Picturehouse topper Bob Berney traces his remarkable instinct for picking break-out specialized films (“The Passion of the Christ,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Whale Rider”) to his roots as an arthouse exhibitor at the historic Inwood Theater in Dallas. Producer and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, a Texas native, met Berney at the Inwood in the late ’80s, when Berney interviewed him onstage after presenting the Dallas premiere of Cannes festival winner “Paris, Texas” at the Inwood.
The two struck up a friendship that continued while Carson was producing “Bottle Rocket” in the Dallas area. “Bob had turned the theater into a hub for the filmmakers in Dallas,” Carson recalls.
At the Algonquin Hotel in New York recently, Variety had Carson turn the tables by interviewing Berney in connection with his selection as the Hamptons Film Festival’s Industry Toast honoree. For starters, Berney recalled his “regular growing up” in Oklahoma City as well as on “a small family farm out in Yukon — mostly a place to get away.” He thrived, he said, on “high school parties, swimming, and music in the hay-barn — mid-country kicks.”
L.M. Kit Carson: From mid-country kicks, what early drives do you think led you toward the wilds of movie-making?
Bob Berney: What hooked me early on was the old theaters downtown. I’d go see movies at least once a week, even as a kid — I’d ride the bus. (It was) this special experience of moviegoing under the grand marquee façade into these nostalgic architectural viewing-palaces, what I called the “dream houses.”
Carson: So Picturehouse starts in the “dream-house.”
Berney: Here’s what I can’t forget — in ’68 I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in this wide-curved-screen downtown Cinerama Theater. As the theater darkened, a trap-door opened in front of the movie-screen – and an American flag popped up and rotated in a spotlight. The audience stood to recite the pledge of allegiance before seeing this mind-boggling Kubrick movie.
Carson: That’s a key-shot from the ’60s. But jump-cut to the ’90s… to you standing behind the movie-screen – now you’re operating a “dream-house,” the classic Art Nouveau-esque Inwood Theater in Dallas. What’s the connecting through-line?
Berney: Movie-going. After film school at U.T. (the University of Texas in Austin) my work choice was running theaters in big towns, small towns all over Texas – Houston, Farmers Branch. Finally, in setting up Dallas’ Inwood Theater, I felt I was really getting into the place I had dreamed about. At the time if was closed because of a fire, but it had been the longest running Dallas moviehouse – since the 1940s. It was the favorite hometown theater, and it was cool to share all the moviegoers’ nostalgia in re-opening this story palace. We got a lucky break to get it and re-birth it.
Carson: Do you believe in luck? You gave away lucky stones from the Maorists at the opening of “Whale Rider.”
Berney: So much of distribution is the real palpable magic of when events line up. Happy accidents. Luck, yeh. But you try to know what to do next – how to stay really flexible – and keep your timing open for when you do get lucky.
Carson: From the Inwood, you start to explore and define the totally uncharted local audience. Your timing here was on the pre-Tarantino edge — there was no real Sundance effect yet. Why did you think you were able to develop indie moviegoers in Dallas?
Berney: Because sometimes – unexpectedly, unpredictably – I connected to them. Like this – no studio would ever book a movie to me, no matter how hard I pushed. Then one day Universal called up: “Okay, we want you to play this movie.” I was like, “you’re kidding.” But they said, “no joke. It’s called ‘Brazil’ and it’s just great.” I knew there was a major battle going on between Universal and the director, Terry Gilliam, and that Universal (was) dumping the film to prove it wasn’t worth a real release. So they were booking this loser independent theater – the Inwood – to destroy it. But, critics loved it, moviegoers loved it, and we worked it into a big local hit. So I got this feeling I could market unexpected hits – by bizarreness, pure luck or blind optimistic faith. If we just plugged at it we’d learn how – movie by movie.
Carson: Can you pull a roster of movies that taught you, surprise hit by hit?
Berney: Surprise hits? The earliest: “My Brilliant Career,” the Gillian Armstrong film, played solid for eight months. Later, “A Room with a View.” Art films maybe – but with a conventional storyline almost like a novel, and literary protagonists. These movies focused us on university audiences from the nearby SMU (Southern Methodist University) and upscale neighborhoods. Then “Kiss Of the Spiderwoman” hit – we tapped this market because we were near the main gay neighborhood.
Carson: So you began to interweave the basic indie demographic around the Inwood – upscale plus college plus gay. This motivated your pitch to Miramax to make you the Texas-launch moviehouse for “The Crying Game?
Berney: Miramax was open to my pitch because they were still trying to figure out who would even play their movies. I showed them we were working hard to court several overlapping constituencies. I believed I could get all those different moviegoers coming together to see this one cool movie. Harvey Weinstein’s “don’t reveal the ending” hook – that had strong play. But it was mainly the luck of the moment – we’d developed this Dallas movie-going community into a very diverse, supportive audience. It was ready to go when “The Crying Game” hit.
Carson: The Inwood Theater should put a plaque beside the box-office: “Bob Berney first got lucky here.”
Berney: (laughs) It’s where I met my wife Jeanne – yeah, that was real lucky.
Carson: People in this biz say you seem to have a “golden gut”. What factors about a movie project lead you to a ‘yes’ in the middle of many others saying ‘no’?
Berney: Thinking back to “Greek Wedding” – the key for me was seeing it with a big ordinary moviegoing crowd, as opposed to in a private screening room. I felt it in the audience — they were saying: “Hollywood isn’t making these nice movies anymore, where can we see this movie again?” Sometimes it is that obvious – if you’re at right place at the right time with the right audience.”
Carson: That’s what the great film critic Pauline Kael used to call feeling “the heat in the seats.” Besides that, how much do you put your heart into your choices?
Berney: I just fell in love with “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” It reminded me of college spring break drives through Texas to South Padre Island. It was such a powerfully nostalgic emotional road-movie for me. Then I’m realizing — oh yeah, this movie’s in Spanish and can’t be rated, and then figuring the marketing out later. But mostly it starts with a very personal charge between me and the movie.
Carson: Do you consider your audience your friends, so you can pass on a “very personal charge”? What you think do you sell your audience?
Berney: I’m not sure this is exactly the word – but I’d say “diversity.” Or “another way” – so you can look at different worlds, different people, and experiences. The movies I’ve worked on are all pretty much against-the-grain alternates. They’re definitely selling what you can’t get through normal regular entertainment.
Carson: What’s the smartest thing you ever did?
Berney: For a regular guy from Oklahoma — never getting a regular, real job. But even smarter, I’ve always stayed open. You can’t fall into the trap of thinking you can just force things to work. I hope I never do that. I hope I never think I know anything or everything.
Carson: It’s not a bad story so far, Bob – who would you cast in the biopic – Matt Dillon or Johny Depp?
Berney: They’re both cool – not me, exactly. My teenage sons Sean and Liam would no way let me get away with Johnny Depp. Maybe Matt Dillon fits – he’s unforgettable in Coppola’s “The Outsiders” as an Oklahoma kid.
Carson: Call it “The Oklahoma Kid” – homage to the classic Cagney/Bogart ’30s gangster Western… Gangster Western? Sounds like a movie for Picturehouse.
Berney: (laughs) Let me read the script first.