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Sony Pictures Classics Q&A: ‘It’s the Year of Women’ at Sundance

From “Sleeping With Other People” to “The Bronze,” a host of female driven films are hitting this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker believe that the wealth of pictures featuring women and aimed at that audience aren’t an aberration. They’re a sign of a flourishing of female talent that will reap dividends for decades.

The indie veterans sat down at the Variety Studio Presented by Dockers to discuss their approach to bidding on Sundance favorites, their aversion to video-on-demand and the reason they fought for and won the rights to “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” the edgy new coming-of-age drama that earned rave reviews and was directed by a rising young female director named Marielle Heller.

How has Sundance changed since you first came here decades ago?

Tom Bernard:  It’s not like the old days where if one movie got sold it was a victory here. Every movie will end up somewhere, but there’s so many different types of people that are buying films. People are buying films for Netflix. They’re buying films for VOD. Studios are looking to fill slots with movies here. There’s people for television looking to buy for TV. There’s people here from TV production companies looking for directors to direct their TV shows. It’s the most diverse group of people walking the streets that I’ve ever seen.

Michael Barker: Every company has a different business plan or agenda that suits their company. When Tom and I started in the business, most companies had similar agendas. It’s not like that any more.

Many of these new players have different business models. Companies like Netflix don’t make money selling tickets or DVDs. Does that make it harder for you to buy films when your path to profitability isn’t the same one?

Barker: We don’t think about competitors when we make an offer. We have learned the hard way, years ago, that when we think about what someone else is doing, that’s when we make big mistakes.

Bernard: You never lost money on a movie you didn’t buy.

What excited you about “Diary of a Teenage Girl”?

Bernard: To me this movie should have been made a long time ago. It’s a coming of age story about a teenage girl and you’ve seen so many of these stories of the coming of age of a young man. “The Catcher in the Rye” story. The first time the young guy has sex. It’s just a constant theme in Hollywood and it’s about time that somebody made a movie for women. It’s about women taking charge of their sexuality and becoming empowered with it.

It’s the year of the woman.

Barker: Every year when we go to Cannes. When we go to Sundance there’s a motif in the finest films. It’s almost like there’s something going on in that moment.

I don’t know how that happens, but things reveal themselves and I think at this festival the motif is feminism. This festival has so many great films about women and their experience. Women of every age. Major female directors, I mean the director of “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” this is the birth of a major, major filmmaker and I think we’re seeing a lot of that here.

Studies show there is still a huge discrepancy between the number of male and female filmmakers. Is it getting better?

Bernard: It’s getting better but one thing I think I’ve noticed is that the internet has empowered women quite a bit. It puts them on an equal footing with any man. If it’s a Facebook page. If it’s a blog. They can say what they want and they don’t get interfered with. That message gets across.

People who might be shy. People who might have felt repressed and have not been able to speak out, can speak out and are being heard, and I think that this new generation that’s grown up with the internet is going to really integrate with the male-dominated system in the years to come, and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of that.

Barker: I think it’s a big problem and I think it’s great that it’s being pointed out in such a major way.

Manohla Dargis’ piece on this in the New York Times last weekend was a real eye opener and I think it’s a real issue. It’s a legitimate issue and when you’re sitting here and you’re seeing the work of Claudia Llosa or [Marielle Heller] the director of “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” you’re just floored by the talent, and I think it’s a real problem that so many of these women directors do not have the ability to prevail when they have talent, unbelievable talent and I’m really glad this issue is coming to the forefront in a major way.

Do you think studios put themselves at a commercial disadvantage by not fostering more female voices?

Bernard: I think the studios have sort of woken up to that where you’ve seen “The Hangover” version for women maybe with a movie like “Bachelerotee.”

I think women are very discerning about what they see and I think they are still the person that leads the choice to see the film if it’s a couple going to see a movie.

Barker: Independent films have always been supported by certain demographics — women, senior citizens, the gay audience. Hollywood, the big studios, started to recognize that several years ago. Before several years ago, I don’t remember what the cutoff point was, it was always movies for teenage boys, and I believe that’s changed and I believe what’s caused it to change is the different ways you can see a movie. Theatrical releases would have a real problem without those demographics that I just described. Those are real filmgoers.

Sony Pictures Classics doesn’t tend to release film simultaneously in theaters and on-demand. Why?

Barker: Every film is different and some films it makes total sense to do that. We tend to gravitate to the films that require theatrical release for the word of mouth to travel. We have been on the screen with “Whiplash” for many months and only now is it getting that mainstream audience and it took this long for that word of mouth to kick in. If that film had been open day and date in VOD, I don’t believe you would have been able to capture the revenues this picture is going to be able to capture.

Bernard: VOD day and date, you basically are signalling that this movie is not as good as the other movies. It’s a valid way to go if you don’t think you can sustain a theatrical run.

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