Picturehouse’s first incarnation was short, but colorful: For three years, from 2005 until the economic crash, the production company that Bob Berney founded in partnership with HBO Films and New Line lived under the Warner Bros. roof and released films including “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” When Picturehouse shuttered in Warners’ consolidation, Berney — a Texas theater owner-turned-distribution executive — tried to reignite his idea of creative, individualized distribution and marketing for films like Aramaic-language, English-subtitled megahit “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which Berney and wife, Jeanne, nursed from eight screens to 500 over the course of several months, at places like Apparition and FilmDistrict.
In January, he again secured the Picturehouse name for himself (he’s CEO; Jeanne, is president), and is ready for the next stage of his, and the film industry’s, evolution. Picturehouse is relaunching with “Metallica Through the Never,” a fiction feature starring the four Metallica band members and Dane DeHaan, written and directed by “Predators” helmer Nimrod Antal. The pic is set for release Aug. 9.
Berney sat down with Randee Dawn in his Bronxville, N.Y., office to talk about the Picturehouse brand, digital distribution and a possible foray into TV (thanks to an output deal with Netflix) and why adapting to new business models is critical to survival.
RANDEE DAWN: How are you smarter now about running an independent film company than before?
BOB BERNEY: If you stay in the mode that everyone was in 10 years ago and you’re not willing to adapt or listen, you’ll fail. When we did “Passion of the Christ,” we went on 5,000 screens, and people were like, “You can’t possibly do that with your staff and size of studio.” The challenge for me is to try and keep that attitude (of attempting the impossible). Everything you weren’t supposed to do — day-and-date, VOD — is happening.
RD: Why partner with Netflix for an output deal?
BB: They were a game-changer for the pay-TV window. For a lot of independents, you couldn’t get a deal with major pay services. Netflix has been able to go to the independents and really monetize them, and if you’re going to be an aggressive theatrical distributor, that’s a great safety net in your budget. (For) the original Picturehouse — since we were owned by HBO and New Line — that wasn’t a problem.
RD: Netflix’s “House of Cards” is a TV series that has a film feel to it, and it has a budget an indie filmmaker would admire. Do you see Picturehouse getting into TV?
BB: We’re not a snob about only doing films. Everything’s blended, (so that’s) totally possible down the road. If you look at who’s directing these shows, it’s independent filmmakers who would struggle for three years to get their next project started. Now they’re doing stuff all the time, and a lot of them aren’t coming back to film.
RD: After Picturehouse folded, you founded Apparition with producer Bill Pohlad, but you quit just before Cannes 2010. Why didn’t that work?
BB: For what we do, you always have to acquire films, you have to be moving. I just didn’t want to go through another Cannes, and my contract was up. It was positioned in a way that (my exit) seemed abrupt, but we’d been trying to buy films for a long time. I was tired of showing up and not buying anything. I like Bill; it wasn’t personal. But he’s a producer and a producer/filmmaker at heart. Distribution is a different business: You have to find movies and love them as much as your own. That’s hard for producers.
RD: Your goals for this year — two to three indie films, increasing to six or seven after 2014 — sound modest.
BB: We want to be modest. That (number) refers to the bigger films we’re going to do on an aggressive platform release. What we did at the old Picturehouse is find out what type of model fits each film. As we go along, we’ll develop other tiers of smaller films, too; we haven’t figured out how many, or what that’s going to look like. Right now, we’re starting out as distributors, and then (adding) acquisitions of up to $3 million-$4 million.
RD: Are you leaner and meaner and better able to evolve in the business, then?
BB: We’re definitely more adaptable and flexible — we’ve had to be. And when you have to be, you’re more open to change.
RD: What issues loom largest for indie film distributors?
BB: The big challenge is going to be how does it evolve? That’s why I want to go back to what we do, where we find models that work for each film, or genres that work well in traditional models. That’s hard, that puzzle, to find out what’s going to work. I really hope we can use the Picturehouse name to brand channels, television; we want to build it up, like a brand. It’s fun. Scary and fun.