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Berney’s exit a mark of indie uncertainty

Move underscores industry turbulence

While there are many uncertainties surrounding Bob Berney’s unexpected exit Monday from Apparition, one certainty is that the sudden resignation stands as a stark reminder of the tough times facing indie distributors.

Another certainty: In Cannes this year, Berney will have a lot of questions to field.

Speculation about the exact reasons for his departure was a recurring theme among execs on both coasts readying to travel Tuesday to the Croisette. Berney offered no comment.

But his trip to Cannes, where he had intended to go seeking acquisitions for Appa rition, is still on. It’s not clear what he’ll be there to accomplish.

Though no one seems to have seen his exit coming, some observers saw it as in character for Ber ney, who has long seemed more likely to strike off on his own than to stick around in a situation he believes isn’t working.

According to some insiders, Apparition — led by Bill Pohlad and Berney — didn’t turn out to be what Berney expected.

They say that under the terms of their deal, Pohlad provided Berney with overhead. However, Berney was reportedly required to raise production financing, as well as marketing coin, which became increasingly difficult. It wasn’t clear whether this was the case in every instance or just on certain films.

For the moment, the trigger for the split remains a mystery.

However, the turbulence underlines the uncertainties plaguing the distribution model for indie film. With fewer specialty films finding success theatrically, experiments with new deal structures, self-distribution, video-on-demand and online platforms abound, but without a clear monetizing strategy.

“Distribution is a tough business,” said Andrew Herwitz, prexy of the Film Sales Co.

Apparition made its unofficial debut only a year ago, at Cannes, where Berney and Pohlad announced they had acquired Jane Campion’s festival title “Bright Star.”

After “Bright Star,” which grossed just $4.4 million, Apparition managed just over $10 million with “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” and $11 million with kudos hopeful “The Young Victoria.” But it was the underperformance of “The Runaways,” financed by Pohlad’s separate company, River Road Entertainment, that highlighted the limitations facing Berney at Apparition.

The music biopic was hobbled, insiders said, by underfunded marketing, and failed to find an audience either with young fans of “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart or with baby boomers who remembered the band, ending up with just $3.5 million.

As Apparition grapples with Berney’s departure, Valerie Bruce, senior VP of business affairs, will serve as interim chief operating officer. The company’s upcoming release sked, including Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and Sundance pickup “Welcome to the Rileys,” still stands, at least for now.

The affable Berney is well respected by his colleagues. Known for distribution successes “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” he was later named head of Picturehouse, which Warner Bros. shuttered two years ago.

No matter what his role at Cannes turns out to be this year, he’ll certainly be hounded by questions about his exit from Apparition — and about what he intends to do next.

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