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Shrewd handling yields real profits

Sony Pictures Classics at 20

Time and again, independent filmmakers around the world claim that without Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and their team at Sony Pictures Classics, there would be no market in the U.S. for their work.

Barker and Bernard are known for being frugal in buying and marketing their movies. With a tiny but long-serving staff, they have made consistent returns for 20 years in the toughest arthouse niche, which has kept them in the game when others have come and gone.

Their low-cost model gives auteurs from home and abroad not just an aud, but also a real chance of seeing profits.

“They are very proactive, very careful in where and how they spend their money, and they do it the most intelligent way,” says British producer Jeremy Thomas, a longtime friend whose “A Dangerous Method” is being handled by SPC. “As a producer, you want them to promote your film the right way, but in such a way that you actually make some money if the film is a success. It’s an easy job to spend yourself into a gross. They have a different game plan. It’s about PR and awards and strategic markets and platform releases, and working the films in each market.”

Hong Kong producer Bill Kong agrees. “They spend money wisely, and we are grateful for that,” says Kong, who made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with SPC, and has since sold several more Chinese films to the company. “We are still getting overages from ‘Crouching Tiger’ 10 years later, because they didn’t spend wildly. With them, it’s not about how much money you get upfront, it’s about the fact that when you have a hit, you get every cent from them that you deserve.”

“The value they get from every dollar spent is remarkable,” says “Capote” helmer Bennett Miller. “They pride themselves on knowing what’s wasteful. There’s a certain euphoria they enjoy in their frugality, and in observing the perceived wastage of other distributors.”

“They are very publicity oriented and very creative,” says Anthony Bregman, producer of several SPC pics including “Please Give,” “Friends With Money,” “Thumbsucker,” “Synecdoche, New York” and “The Tao of Steve.” “It’s no secret they don’t spend a lot of money. They do more with a dollar than anyone else in the business, because they have a very smart team who have been there for years and years.”

As a result, Bregman says, “They are responsible for keeping in the public discourse so many of the European filmmakers who wouldn’t get distribution in America otherwise.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by German producer Stefan Arndt of X Filme, the company behind “Run Lola Run.” “It’s strange to stand in front of their building on Madison Avenue and realize that this is the center of releasing foreign-language movies in America,” Arndt says. “They have the same problems as everyone else, that the audience is getting older and older for these kind of movies, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find the right titles that are able to jump over to a wider audience.”

Arndt notes that the Sony Classics team knows every town in the U.S., and how to get the maximum possible response in each city, whether it’s using the Internet, radio, newspaper or another medium. “We are a distributor in Germany, and if we ever get into trouble, I would go as a trainee to Sony Classics and learn from them,” he adds.

“They are remarkably consistent in everything they do, and have been the same for as long as I have known them,” says Canadian producer Robert Lantos, whose latest pic, “Barney’s Version,” is among many of his films handled by SPC. “When other so-called independent distributors have fallen by the wayside or changed their strategy, they have been like a rock. They are in this for the long run, they are not a sprinter.”

SPC’s model has been so effective for so long, it’s a puzzle why others have not tried to copy it, he says. “But it’s more than a model, it’s about who Tom and Michael are, their personality, and it’s not easy to duplicate that. They are connoisseurs of film, they love film, they have encyclopedic knowledge.”

“They are so involved in the culture of cinema, as well as the business of cinema,” echoes Thomas.

Barker and Bernard’s intense personal engagement with crafting their distribution campaigns and hand-carrying their films market by market contrasts with their almost religious refusal to interfere with the filmmaking process itself.

“They go to such great lengths to avoid being involved creatively,” Bregman says. “They are always after movies with a real filmmaker vision, not something that feels market-driven, and they want the filmmaker’s imprint all over it, not theirs.”

When Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” came to New York for a brief shoot, Bregman invited Barker and Bernard to visit the set. They agreed to drop by for lunch, but when they arrived at the location in the Old Navy building on a February day, the shoot was running late. “So they refused to actually come in, they just stood outside in the freezing cold and waited, because they didn’t want to interfere,” Bregman says.

“Their idea of a test screening is to rent a theater in Cambridge and have the director do the Q&A, not some focus-group leader. I’ve seen the organizer hand the audience card to Tom and he didn’t even look at them, he just handed them straight to the director.”

Doc director Errol Morris agrees. “They are remarkably hands-off. I’ve had to solicit them, beg them for their opinion. I actually enjoy hanging out with them, so it’s always a pleasure to be in business with them. Am I completely happy with everything they do? Of course not, no filmmaker is ever going to be completely happy with everything a distributor does. But I enjoy their company and I consider them my friends, and that’s really saying a lot.”

Says Kong: “With ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ they only gave notes after they saw the final cut, and their notes were not very intrusive or aggressive at all.”

“They are smart fellows whose opinions are very welcome,” says Marc Platt, producer of “Rachel Getting Married.” “They are definitely a wonderful complement to each other. Michael is perhaps slightly more of a communicator, he’s got a very easy way with filmmakers, but they are both fiercely intelligent. Michael is more the professor, Tom is the street guy who’s a little bit more facile with the numbers and the sense of distribution.”

“Michael and Tom have a genuine appreciation for films of quality,” says Letty Aronson, who produces her brother Woody Allen’s films. “Working with them is very pleasurable, because they get it. You can depend on them, and they have great taste.

“The market in the U.S. has changed so much, but they have remained a constant,” she adds.

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS AT 20
Steady as she grows | Shrewd handling yields real profits | SPC mines foreign gold | Despite illness’ gloom, Bloom integral to company
The Stories Behind the Movies
“Capote” | “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” | “The Fog Of War” | “The Lives of Others” | “Rachel Getting Married” | “Run Lola Run”
The Collaborators
Pedro Almodovar | Lone Scherfig

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