When Tom Bernard and Michael Barker saw “Equity” at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, they knew immediately that the thriller about women breaking Wall Street’s glass ceiling would tap into the zeitgeist — before reviews even hit, the Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents snapped up the movie and gamed out a release plan that saw the studio debuting the picture the same week that Hillary Clinton claimed the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
“They instantly understood that the movie was an opportunity to have a conversation about women in business,” says Meera Menon, the film’s director. So Bernard and Barker worked with Menon and producers Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas to set up screenings with women’s groups all over the country, organizing discussions about gender discrimination around the film.
“It’s a thriller and a Wall Street drama, but it’s also an issues movie,” says Bernard. “It’s a movie about women and their struggles and their lives from their point of view.”
It’s not like those issues are unique to the world of high finance. Yet at a time when Hollywood is struggling to provide opportunities for female filmmakers, Sony Pictures Classics has consistently done more to promote women in film than any other studio. In addition to “Equity,” roughly one-third of the pictures the New York-based distributor will release this year come from female directors, including the dramedy “The Meddler,” the documentary “Dark Horse,” the relationship comedy “Maggie’s Plan,” and “Toni Erdmann,” a German workplace farce that took Cannes by storm. They will also back a number of female-centric pictures such as “Elle” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta.”
|Mike McGregor for Variety|
Now in its 25th year, the company has backed 55 films from women directors, forming lasting relationships with the likes of Nicole Holofcener, Agnieszka Holland, Susanne Bier, and Sally Potter.
“It wasn’t something we set out to do,” says Bernard. “They were unique stories we thought would speak to an audience. Sometimes we only found out later that they were from women directors.”
Adds Barker, “With a lot of these directors, the characteristic you find is that they’re uncompromising. They have stories they need to tell, and they’re going to get them out.”
Though it may not have been by design, Sony Pictures Classics’ track record stands in stark contrast to much of Hollywood. Last year, women accounted for just 7% of directors on the top 100 grossing films, according to a survey by the Center
for the Study of Women in Television & Film. Bernard and Barker believe that the indie world has always been more open to female talent but suggest that the entertainment landscape at large is growing more diverse.
“Women’s stories are now being told,” said Bernard. “They’re being told on TV. They’re being told in mainstream movies. There are women gaffers and grips. There’s a real change in society. There’s a woman running for president, and nobody’s batting an eye.”
|A Beautiful Friendship: Bernard (above) and Barker have worked together for four decades. Mike McGregor for Variety|
That may be true, but, while the data is promising, the industry has a long way to go to attain parity.
Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, collaborated with Sony Pictures Classics on 2007’s “Persepolis,” an animated movie about growing up in Iran that Barker and Bernard backed because their children were familiar with the graphic novel that inspired it. She says there’s a lot more conversation about the need for diversity. Yet she argues that more studios need to follow the indie label’s example.
“Issues involving discrimination essentially change through visionary leadership,” says Kennedy. “Those who make decisions need to be mindful of what is inclusive and equally representative of the population.”
Experts who have studied the issue argue that hiring a female director is important to promoting women throughout a film’s crew. Movies with women directors are more likely to have female writers, cinematographers, and producers, and are also more likely to have meaty roles for actresses. “The director’s role is a gatekeeper to other important behind-the-scenes roles,” says Martha Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film.
Barker and Bernard insist that they never had a political agenda; they just want to release good movies for sophisticated audiences, and they don’t much care who is calling the shots. But the women they work with aren’t surprised by the studio’s track record when it comes to gender diversity.
“They’re open-minded people who’re looking at the movies and not the gender,” says Holland, who has worked with Sony Pictures Classics on three films, including the Oscar-nominated “In Darkness.” At the same time, it may be Barker and Bernard’s sensibility. “They’re very sensitive and emotional people, and that makes them more open to complexity. There’s something female about that,” adds the director.
|Plenty of Room for Growth|
|Women remain under-represented in key positions in indie film.|
|Source: Center for the Study of Women in television & Film, 2015|
But Sony Pictures Classics hasn’t just been a haven for female filmmakers. Since its inception in 1992, the distributor has fielded a number of films that have featured strong roles for leading actresses like Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Marcia Gay Harden, and Penelope Cruz. Awards attention has followed.
In their first year in business, Barker and Bernard propelled Emma Thompson to a best actress win for “Howards End,” and their recent track record has been equally successful. Three years ago, the studio scored a best actress Oscar for Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” and a year later nabbed the same prize for Julianne Moore in “Still Alice.” This fall, Sony will be banging the drum once again, pushing Isabelle Huppert for her work as a sexual assault victim who seeks revenge in “Elle,” and trumpeting “Toni Erdmann” as a best picture candidate.
Bernard and Barker have worked together for four decades. They met in 1979 as employees of Films Incorporated before moving on to run the art-house labels United Artists Classics and Orion Classics. They launched Sony Pictures Classics — with Marcie Bloom, who retired in 1996 for health reasons — with a mandate that has remained unchanged. “Our goal has always been creating the most diverse program possible — one that also generates profit and revenues,” says Barker.
Barker and Bernard’s longevity, and that of Sony Pictures Classics, is particularly impressive given the short life span of many Hollywood players in the specialty film space. Major studios such as Warner Bros. and Paramount long ago shuttered their indie labels, and Disney got out of the art-house business six years ago when it sold Miramax to a group of investors. But Sony Pictures Classics is still seen as a complementary part of its big studio parent, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Barker and Bernard lend the enterprise a touch of class, not only winning Oscars, but producing the kinds of films that have a long shelf life on home entertainment platforms, particularly among cinephiles.
|“We want to leave no audience unserved.”
“We program for all audiences,” says Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group. “We want to leave no audience unserved. They are a very important part of rounding out the completeness of our slate.”
He credits both men with having that hardest of qualities to replicate: “Those that go the distance have the one thing that none of the Johnny-come-latelys have,” he says, “and that’s taste.”
Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton adds, “The long list of extraordinary films, filmmakers and talent associated with SPC is a testament to the strength of their outstanding partnership.”
It also helps that SPC keeps a tight rein on costs. The studio has been profitable every year of its existence, save one, and Bernard and Barker have a hands-on approach to distribution — plotting out which theaters are best for highlighting their releases, and designing their marketing materials with an intimate team.
Beyond that, the film business is a relationships business, and few have the kind of Rolodex that Barker and Bernard maintain. Work associations blossom into friendships, they say. A testament to these close bonds is the preponderance of return customers; the company has partnered on multiple films with iconic creatives such as Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar.
|A Couple of Classics: Tom Bernard, Marcie Bloom, and Michael Barker on their first day at SPC.|
The two leaders believe that their filmmakers are the best messengers for their work, and so they strategize cross-country promotional campaigns that find their directors talking up their vision in major media markets. In between, Barker and Bernard find time to socialize with directors and talent they’re partnering with, impressing them with their encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and their skills as raconteurs.
“I’ve never gotten as drunk or had as much fun as I’ve had when I’m working with them,” says Bier. “You enjoy going to dinner with them. Usually with most working dinners, by 10 you’re looking at your watch and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up early.’ With them, you hang out until 3 or 4 in the morning just talking.”
Rebecca Miller, the director of “Maggie’s Plan,” had never worked with the pair before, but came away impressed with their personalized approach. “At a time when the world is more corporatized and homogenized, and keeps conspiring against original voices, they’ve stayed true to who they are,” she says.
For Barker, the idea for nurturing female talent hits close to home. His daughter, Kate Barker-Froyland, is a filmmaker who made her debut with last year’s “Song One,” a romantic drama with Anne Hathaway. She didn’t see herself as tearing down any kind of gender barrier, though, Barker says. He adds, “She just loves movies.”
|Sony Pictures Classics – FEMALE DIRECTED FILMS|
|TONI ERDMANN||Maren Ade|
|MAGGIE’S PLAN||Rebecca Miller|
|DARK HORSE||Louise Osmond|
|THE MEDDLER||Lorene Scafaria|
|THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL||Marielle Heller|
|INFINITELY POLAR BEAR||Maya Forbes|
|LAND HO!||Martha Stephens (and Aaron Katz)|
|FILL THE VOID||Rama Burshtein|
|LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED||Susanne Bier|
|WEST OF MEMPHIS||Amy Berg|
|CHICKEN WITH PLUMS||Marjane Satrapi (and Vincent Paronnaud)|
|WHERE DO WE GO NOW?||Nadine Labaki|
|IN DARKNESS||Agnieszka Holland|
|HIGHER GROUND||Vera Farmiga|
|IN A BETTER WORLD||Susanne Bier|
|PLEASE GIVE||Nicole Holofcener|
|AN EDUCATION||Lone Scherfig|
|COCO BEFORE CHANEL||Anne Fontaine|
|SUGAR||Anna Boden (and Ryan Fleck)|
|FROZEN RIVER||Courtney Hunt|
|BRICK LANE||Sarah Gavron|
|PERSEPOLIS||Marjane Satrapi (and Vincent Paronnaud)|
|THE JANE AUSTEN BOOKCLUB||Robin Swicord|
|THE QUIET||Jamie Babbit|
|FRIENDS WITH MONEY||Nicole Holofcener|
|SAVING FACE||Alice Wu|
|LOOK AT ME||Agnès Jaoui|
|MY LIFE WITHOUT ME||Isabel Coixet|
|LAUREL CANYON||Lisa Cholodenko|
|13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING||Jill Sprecher|
|GRATEFUL DAWG||Gillian Grisman|
|THE LUZHIN DEFENSE||Marleen Gorris|
|SHADOW MAGIC||Ann Hu|
|THE TAO OF STEVE||Jenniphr Goodman|
|ME, MYSELF, I||Pip Karmel|
|THE THIRD MIRACLE||Agnieszka Holland|
|THE GOVERNESS||Sandra Goldbacher|
|THE TANGO LESSON||Sally Potter|
|A CHEF IN LOVE||Nana Dzhordzhadze|
|BEAUTIFUL THING||Hettie MacDonald|
|MANNY AND LO||Lisa Krueger|
|MARTHA & ETHEL||Jyll Johnstone|
|I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT||Maria Luisa Bemberg|
|MIA VIDA LOCA||Allison Anders|
|OLIVIER OLIVIER||Agnieszka Holland|