Sony Classics plays by its own rules

Specialty arm rolling out 'The Wackness'

“The Wackness,” which opens July 4, is a low-low-budget movie about a kid who sells dope to finance his visits to his shrink, who then becomes a dealer too. The movie includes a scene in which Mary-Kate Olsen makes out with Ben Kingsley, of all people.

During a season when the major studios roll out their heavyweight pics, “The Wackness” is Sony Pictures Classics’ big summer offering.

There’s a whacked-out symbolism in this: “Wackness” is a perfect example of how Sony Classics plays by its own rules.

Hollywood is paying more and more for production and P&A (see separate story about toons’ ballooning marketing costs). Even studios’ specialty divisions have caught the fever, with sharp increases in spending as they hope to turn every little film into a “Juno”-style home run.

But at Sony Classics, $6 million to $8 million is considered a big marketing budget. Co-prexies Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are famous for keeping costs down, and even have the same number of employees as when the company started 16 years ago. Along with the scaled-down costs are appropriate expectations. Barker explains the SPC philosophy: “Other companies look for home runs; we just go for singles and doubles.”

Changes in the specialty market have caused most of the majors’ specialty divisions to fold or rethink their game plans, with serious downsizing. But SPC continues firm, carrying the flag for modest-grossing foreign-language fare, arthouse films, and quirky, personal offerings like “Wackness.” The secret to their success? As one colleague says, Barker and Bernard are “cheap and disciplined.”

The company paid only $2 million for “The Wackness,” and the marketing outlay will be modest.

“This is the business we’ve been doing for years,” Bernard says. “We’re not growing our business to the point where we’re going to gamble each year’s profitability on a $30 million-$40 million picture. ‘Crouching Tiger’ did $130 million at the box office with a $20 million dollar marketing spend, and we were never No. 1 at the box office.”

SPC hasn’t had a huge box office hit in several years. But with a release slate of 16-22 films a year, it’s had some good results with acquisitions such as “The Lives of Others,” “Persepolis” and “The Counterfeiters.” “Counterfeiters” was an inexpensive buy and, thanks to positive reviews and word of mouth, it has grossed almost $ 5.5 million and is expected to play throughout the summer.

The box office was minimal for “The Jane Austen Book Club,” written and directed by Robin Swicord, and for the David Mamet film “Redbelt,” with an eclectic cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tim Allen.

“Book Club” did $3.6 million at the domestic box office, but after DVD and TV sales, it will end up in profit. Nobody got rich off it, but this is what barker and Bernard mean by singles and doubles.

“Redbelt,” with a budget of $7 million, earned only $2.3 million at the box office. The marketing was surprisingly cheap and the execs take the “long tail” approach to earnings.

“In this day and age when you cannot rely on box office, you have to think about other revenue streams,” Barker says. For example, DVD. After “Redbelt” opened in six theaters on May 2, it expanded the next week to nearly 1,400. The duo say it was part of their plan to do a big marketing spend all at once, to get the movie on the radar for its post-bigscreen afterlife.

Many skeptics in the industry doubt the film will make it in into the black, but Barker and Bernard are betting it’s going to recoup on DVD in a few years. Plans are for an initial homevid shipment of 700,000 copies, tapping into the wide fan base for martial arts movies as well as Mamet’s arty cachet.

And, unlike film companies that see the world in quarterly results, the SPC team is patient. Its library, with about 300 titles, boasts many titles and directors with avid followings (such as Pedro Almodovar, David Cronenberg and Errol Morris), and DVD sales are healthy for some pics even 15 years after their debuts.

SPC’s library is an example of the benefit of a good working relationship between SPC and Sony Home Entertainment, Sony TV and Sony Intl.

Sony Intl. has the ability to market foreign pics or ones that will fare better in overseas territories through established relationships with distributors and Sony TV, which can hook up deals with non-feevees like TNT and Lifetime.

Some of the strongest library titles in the last decade include eight Almodovar films (since 1996’s “Flower of My Secret”); “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Indochine,” “Opposite of Sex,” “Run Lola Run,” “Spider,” “Winged Migration” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“They are the pros’ pros. They stick to their knitting and they don’t take on something they’re not comfortable with,” Kimmel Distribution prexy Bingham Ray says. “Tom and Michael have been as consistent as the day is long. In a nutshell, that’s impossible to do. They have their great years, their OK years, and a lousy year now and then. They’ve carved out a niche and have stayed with it.”

The company set the template for majors’ specialty divisions when Barker, Bernard and Marcie Bloom founded Sony Classics in 1992. Since then, the company has resisted growth, employing 24 workers, virtually the same number as when it started. The specialty arm keeps a tight crew, and Sony essentially lets it operate autonomously. “We’ve never felt pressure from Sony to pick up films,” Barker says. “All we felt from them is encouragement to do more.”

The execs found success in their first year with “Howards End,” a critical, box office and awards winner. Since then, they’ve had such high-water marks as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Capote” and “Volver.”

Barker and Bernard shrug at the misperception that they have recently branched into production.

Actually, the 1999 “The Winslow Boy” was the first fully financed film from Sony Pictures Classics. They do not do any development, but have fully financed a handful of titles including “Autofocus,” “Friends With Money,” “Layer Cake” and docu “The Fog of War.” Upcoming productions include “Rachel Getting Married” and an untitled Nicole Holofcener project.

SPC also has been a co-production partner on many pictures, starting with its very first film, “Howards End” and continuing with “Vanya on 42nd Street” and “City of Lost Children.” After “Crouching Tiger,” its coproduction role has increased, including “The Company,” “Capote” and recent titles like “Persepolis” and Errol Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure.”

At the Sony Pictures Classics offices high above Madison Avenue and 55th Street, Barker is making some observations about the film business, but the points are being drowned out by muffled voices and background noises from the next office, where Bernard is watching a TV spot for “The Wackness.”

“Our walls are paper thin,” Barker says with a shrug. A phone call to either exec generally results in the two of them shouting questions and answers back and forth through the wall.

They have their own style. At Cannes, execs from other studios are eager to impress with their Hotel du Cap luncheons. Bernard can be seen riding on an old rented bicycle, simply because it’s an efficient way to get around.

In no rush to overpay for titles at Cannes, the SPC contingent stayed there long after many of their rivals had left, closing deals in the last few days and landing Palme d’Or winner “The Class” weeks after the fest ended.

Big-name directors have been known to fly economy-class when it’s on SPC’s dime. Some say Bernard and barker are cheapskates. They insist they spend whatever each film needs, but always with an eye on the bottom line, and not more than they are sure they can reap.

“Some of the movies are service deals and some sell videos and have pay deals behind them,” says marketing vet and consultant Tom Sherak. “What you do know is if you see a picture with a gross of $200,000, you can pretty much guess they did not spend that amount to get that amount. Even if they did, they can go to other windows and make back their fee. They monitor how they do that very, very carefully.”

Focus prexy James Schamus credits Barker and Bernard with knowing their business model. “These guys have discipline, ability to leverage relationships with their corporate parent, but more importantly passion and taste,” he says. Schamus says he learned this side of the business from working with the two on “Crouching Tiger.”

“They are the lifeline between the United States and the rest of international film culture,” Schamus says. “People like me and my colleagues, we release a foreign-language film once or twice a year. These guys are the head of the class. God forbid they should decide to change their business or get out of it. They may be cheap and disciplined, but they’re real.”

Bottom line, says Bernard, “If we’re not making money, we’re not here.”