How Sony Pictures Classics Survived the Indie Film Biz

Co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are recipients of this year's Variety Visionary Award

Michael Barker and Tom Bernard Thrive
Yu Tsai for Variety

One key advantage of running a film company together is that it’s possible to be two places at once. That came in handy on a recent night at the Toronto International Film Festival when Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, canvassed the town. They both attended screenings of “Leviathan,” the Russian film they picked up at Cannes, and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” starring Mark Ruffalo. Then Barker stopped at an event for Martin Scorsese, while Bernard attended back-to-back dinners. They reunited later that evening to haggle over an acquisition deal for the buzzy Julianne Moore drama “Still Alice.”

It’s no wonder that after working in tandem for three decades, Barker and Bernard have perfected a way to navigate an industry that demands constant nurturing of relationships, a keen eye for talent and movies, and the financial discipline to survive the volatility of a business that has seen many of their indie rivals, including Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures, go bust. Sony Pictures Classics has remained unchanged because Barker, 60, and Bernard, 62, have always stuck to their knitting.

“The fact of the matter is, the principles that we started with are still the same,” Barker says. “We’re very auteur-driven. We’re very cost-effective.” But they’ve also had to adapt to a swiftly changing market. “We keep up with all that’s going on, whether it’s the technology, the directors, the stories that are being told,” says Bernard. SPC relies not only on ticket sales but revenue from VOD, airline sales and iTunes to compensate for shrinking DVD receipts.

The duo, whose partnership is one of the longest in Hollywood history, have shepherded over 500 films since they started working together in 1979 at the New York office of Films Incorporated, where Barker sold 16mm films to prisons and libraries, and Bernard focused on theatrical distribution. They then oversaw United Artists Classics and Orion Classics, two studio arthouse divisions that served as the template for SPC, which they launched in 1992 as an autonomously run unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Over the past 22 years, Sony Pictures Classics has landed 114 Oscar nominations and 28 wins with such acclaimed pictures as “Capote” and “Blue Jasmine,” foreign-language hits “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “A Separation,” and documentaries like “Searching for Sugar Man.” This year, the company will undoubtedly figure into the awards race with “Foxcatcher,” “Whiplash,” “Mr. Turner” and “Love Is Strange.”

Since its inception, Sony Pictures Classics has been profitable every year except for one. Consequently, the co-presidents run the shingle without any interference from their corporate bosses, and are also protected by a longtime provision in their contracts. “I watch all their movies,” says Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “They make us look good all the time, and they are an essential part of the company. They are devoted in a way that few executives are.”

They’ve managed to stay afloat in a tough indie market by keeping a tight rein on costs. “We went through a long period of time of people saying we’re too conservative, we didn’t spend the way we should,” Barker says. “But after the 2008 economic implosion, we haven’t had those comments.” That means no corporate jets or town cars. When they need to hitch a ride, they’ll hail a cab, which baffled “Foxcatcher” star Steve Carell. “You don’t have a car that drives you around?” he asked. The hands-on leaders preside over their Manhattan office with a staff of 25 — the same number as when they started. “Michael and I are very involved in the marketing, the theaters, the acquisitions,” Bernard says. “We didn’t elevate ourselves out of the process.”

The pair share a common background, which they credit for their seamless working relationship. Barker was born on a U.S. army base in Germany, and Bernard played various sports growing up, so they both appreciate teamwork. They also complement each other — Barker is a whiz at organizational details, while Bernard handles crisis management. “Our jobs are interchangeable,” Barker says. “Yet we are very different people. It’s only after we start working on something that one of us becomes more prominent.” They occasionally bicker over business decisions but agree about 70% of the time. When they don’t, they abide by one rule: “The fight has to be over within 60 seconds,” says Barker. “But it’s intense.”

Both are known for their intimate touch with filmmakers. It’s not often that a studio chief joins a director’s traveling bandwagon from Sundance to Cannes. They count many of the directors they’ve worked with as close pals. “The idea that Akira Kurosawa wanted to hang out with us blew our minds,” Barker says. “He was such a master.” They met Pedro Almodovar in their Orion days, and have since released most of his films in the U.S. They’ve collaborated with Woody Allen seven times, including this year’s “Magic in the Moonlight.”

“I like to work with them because they appreciate my films and know how to properly present them,” Allen tells Variety. “We are on the same artistic wavelength, and they are people that have proven to me that I can trust them.”

“Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller first met Barker and Bernard when they released “Capote,” for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won the best actor Oscar. Barker only had one note for Miller — to fix an invitation to the premiere of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so its date was accurate. “The glitch just poked him in the eye,” recalls Miller. “They’re not happy if the filmmakers aren’t happy. They spoiled me.”

As much as Barker and Bernard attempt to stay on the cutting-edge, they remain loyal to preserving the theater-going experience and have never wavered in their support of delivering foreign films to American audiences. They famously refused to dub Ang Lee’s 2000’s Mandarin-language martial arts film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a gamble that paid off to the tune of $128 million. And on Sept. 22, the duo received the prestigious French Legion of Honor award for their support of French film.

At Toronto, Barker bumped into a number of colleagues bemoaning the future of the business. “I refuse to buy into this doom and gloom scenario for exhibition,” Barker says. “People still like to go to the movies.”