As an indie film veteran, Bob Berney has seen the value of a high-profile slot at the New York Film Festival, whose fall dates have long corresponded with the ramp-up of awards season. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a film he championed while running Time Warner’s former Picturehouse division, closed the 2006 festival en route to three Oscar wins.
This year, Berney has a rare trifecta. Amazon Studios, where he heads marketing and distribution, has the Opening Night, Closing Night and Centerpiece selections during NYFF, with “Last Flag Flying,” “Wonderstruck” and “Wonder Wheel,” respectively. “Wonderstruck” has played in Cannes and Telluride, but the other two will be world premieres, and “Wonder Wheel” represents the streaming giant’s first foray into full distribution. Previous Amazon titles, including last year’s breakout, “Manchester by the Sea,” have been shared with traditional distributors.
The low-key Berney shrugs off the idea of any kind of high-tech takeover of one of the film world’s most revered temples.
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“A lot of it is the timing of when these films are ready,” he says. “And a lot of it is the alignment of the content that Amazon Studios is developing and what the New York Film Festival is looking for. We are both focused on filmmakers.”
As to the notion of a streaming service mingling with traditional players, Netflix got there first, with last year’s NYFF opener, “13th.” Moreover, Berney says no one should get nervous that Amazon’s share of the limelight means the traditional cinema experience will get a downgrade.
“Our customers on Prime look for films that have been discovered and had a lengthy theatrical run,” he says. “Festivals, especially in New York, help the public and media perception of a film align.”
NYFF, he adds, “is a tribute to cinema and it emphasizes the cinema experience overall. It is known for big presentations where the filmmakers are truly celebrated. That’s what we’ve been doing at Amazon … supporting theatrical, putting on a big event and a big show.”
The festival has occasionally had two of its three tentpole slots occupied by a single company, such as Miramax in its 1990s heyday or Sony Pictures Classics, given its foreign-film bent. But it is certainly rare to have a single company involved across all three.
Thematically, Berney adds, the films all have a chance to resonate with the hometown crowd. Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” depicts Coney Island in the 1950s, captured by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. “Wonderstruck,” meanwhile, got special access to shoot in such landmarks as the Queens Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. And Linklater shows a trio of Vietnam veterans making their way up the Eastern seaboard, including New York.
“Festivals do tend to, consciously or not, have themes,” Berney says. “There’s a thread there.”