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Specialty chiefs bring prestige to Sony

Bernard, Barker have East Coast sensibility

Clusters of waiters suddenly appear in front of a single bare table in the wood-paneled Milton Berle Room at the Friars Club, just blocks away from Sony Pictures Classics’ Madison Avenue headquarters in New York. They deliver plates of food, fill glasses, then quietly vanish. All this for a lunch with Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, SPC’s longtime co-presidents, who together have survived the severe machinations of the indie business.

In earlier days, they often lunched at a local Hamburger Heaven, where the pickles were soggy and the waiters indifferent. Times have indeed changed for Bernard and Barker. They say they have their strongest slate of fall movies in 16 years at Sony, and they are especially proud of the nine films unveiling in Toronto this month.

And, with the Oscar season approaching, they’re quick to tout the performances of Jude Law and Michael Caine in the forthcoming remake of “Sleuth” as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth,” Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Persepolis” and Robin Swicord’s “The Jane Austen Book Club,” among other features.

Like a lot of specialty units attached to the majors (and with Columbia going through a bit of a fallow period in the major Oscar categories over the last decade), SPC acts as much as Sony’s prestige label as it does its niche label. In fact, since Barker and Bernard launched the unit in 1992, SPC has touted more foreign-language Academy Award nominations (17) and wins (six) — including last year’s winner, “The Lives of Others” — than any other distributor, including Miramax.

“I would argue that ‘The Lives of Others’ was as good as any film made in America last year,” says Howard Stringer, who shares the same address as Barker and Bernard. The Sony Corp. chairman and CEO adds that “it’s hard to tell what movies are going to turn into Oscar-winning movies these days,” but acknowledges that “smaller, arty pictures that don’t cost a lot of money” appear to be increasingly attracting “the aesthetic of Oscar voters.”

Dressed in similar button-down shirts, Bernard, 55, and Barker, 53, look more like book editors than passionate cineastes. But cineastes they are, as their extensive resumes attest.

“It’s not just their superb taste, and not merely their impressive eclecticism — distributing foreign as well as indie American films, and documentary as well as fiction — but their integrity,” notes Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia U. “Even if they have smaller budgets than some of their competitors, they treat their films with respect, passion and savvy.”

That attitude has paid off. Over their nearly 30-year run in the independent movie business — first at Films Inc., then at Orion Classics and now at Sony — filmmakers have entrusted Barker and Bernard with their work, a list of auteurs that includes the late Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut as well as Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, Ang Lee, Jean-Luc Godard and Coppola.

As they speak about the centrality of the director to all movies they make and distribute, it’s clear that they, perhaps more than any two executives working in the specialty arena, embody the spirit of 1960s and ’70s auteurism and the ideal of United Artists, especially under Arthur Krim.

“We hold the director as the most important part of the process,” says Bernard, who notes the company’s annual slate of 16 to 20 pics a year is now only one-third acquisitions, with two-thirds coming from inhouse-spurred production. “You come to us with a script and a director, we begin to get interested. You come to us with a star and a script, we’re less interested.”

Barker, sporting a beard these days, chimes in: “Filmmakers are key for us — they always have been, they always will be. It’s like a crap shoot when you make a lot of these decisions, but if you have faith in the director — and you’re right in your selection of the script and the director — you’re that much further ahead as far as things working out.”

It’s no surprise that Coppola, who once began his own short-lived, director-driven company at Paramount, chose to make “Youth Without Youth” — his first film in more than a decade — with SPC, a company known to give directors final cut.

“He’ll make his own film, but he wants to know what we think,” notes Barker, whose face lights up when describing what it’s been like to work with Coppola.

Their passion for working with meticulous directors such as Coppola does not exist in a vacuum, however. They’re acutely aware of how fragmented the specialty marketplace has become. “We are real students of the culture,” Bernard says, adding that it’s vital to stay in touch with the youth culture and the expanding older audience.

Part of SPC’s success has as much to do with the movies it chooses to make as with its lean and committed staff, its conservative approach to budgets and marketing, and its autonomy within Sony.

“They are independent,” acknowledges Michael Lynton, co-chair with Amy Pascal of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “And we think the world of them. They do something nobody else does, and they do it brilliantly. They rely on the infrastructure of this place for all of their homevideo and all of their television and all of their international.”

Adds Pascal: “They just made a movie (“The Jane Austen Book Club”) that we actively developed that they ended up making, so we actually are working with them in a way that’s more collaborative than we ever have.”

When asked if she and Lynton expect more of that in the future, Pascal says the prospect “would be great. … They’re always calling and saying, ‘You’ve got to work with this filmmaker or that.’ ”

Barker says he recently ran into an executive who asked how they make money on movies that might gross only $2 million. He explains they wouldn’t do smaller movies if there wasn’t a way to “eke out a profit” on them.

Knowing how to make a movie of any size work has been their strength since the pair met in 1979. Ira Deutchman, the indie vet who’s president of Emerging Pictures, says the duo’s long-term success is due to their ability to remain completely independent of their parent company.

“The specialized business has a different economic imperative than the major studio business,” Deutchman notes. “The Sony Classics guys grew up in the specialized world, and they understand the difference.”

“We need our autonomy (in order) to function,” Bernard says. “We cannot have red tape and hierarchy.”

But as autonomous as their decisionmaking process is, they never forget they’re also an integrated part of a major company, and know how to take advantage of the conglomerate’s muscle.

The relationship is certainly mutually beneficial: According to Bernard, SPC has contributed over half a billion dollars in revenue to Sony during its tenure at the company.

“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support and encouragement of Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, and Howard Stringer,” Barker stresses. “They’ve encouraged us in every aspect of our business. … They are very much responsible for this freedom to grow.”

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