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SPC’s Michael Barker Optimistic Despite ‘Chaos’ Facing Indie Producers

Michael BarkerGQ Men of the Year
Chelsea Lauren/REX/Shutterstock

Sony Pictures ClassicsMichael Barker told international producers and financiers in London on Tuesday that he remains “very optimistic” about the future of independent film despite the “chaos” of content vying for audiences’ attention. Speaking at the Film London Production Finance Market, Barker said he believed there was now “more at stake than ever before” but that the industry was constantly facing new challenges.

“I’m basically very optimistic because I know what needs to be done,” said Barker. “I won’t allow pessimism in. It’s always been difficult, and every five years it’s a different challenge.

“Quality film is still being made and fought for. I think it will always be a struggle,” Barker added. “What I’m optimistic about is that people are more sophisticated about films than ever before because of access.”

However, he also suggested that the increased access to product via new ways of consuming movies also brought new problems. “The challenge we all have is that there is so much noise in the universe. There are so many options to see films in so many different ways,” said Barker.

“We are in this era where our job is to make films as distinctive as we can so that the public pays attention,” Barker continued. “The problem with technology right now is everyone’s got a bit of ADD and it’s very difficult to focus. We don’t know who to go to that’s a barometer of our tastes. It’s chaos out there and it can be a challenge to cut through. There’s too much content being generated.”

Barker said that only 10 to 12 years ago, he would blanch when 13 movies opened on a Friday in New York. “A few months ago, I saw 42 open,” Barker said. “There is no way there’s room for all those movies. A lot of those movies do not deserve to be in movie theaters and should be on those other platforms. It’s a real problem.”

He told producers that it was a “creative moment” for both distribution and exhibition to think about how they presented films to audiences, while producers needed to be more aware of all the additional revenue streams available to them beyond theatrical. “I think the key to being a successful producer is to be on top of all revenue streams. Then you can see how your vision could pay off rather than it just being a gut feeling,” said Barker.

The co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics was delivering the keynote address at the start of this year’s Production Finance Market, which is now in its 12th year and is organized by British screen industries agency Film London as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

Speaking to Variety after the event, Barker said that while streaming platforms such as Netflix had recently attracted major independent talent such as the Coen brothers, Paul Greengrass, Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, and Alfonso Cuaron, he had faith such filmmakers would not turn their backs on more traditional avenues of distribution and exhibition. “I do feel like these filmmakers that are going to Netflix will come back,” said Barker. “Netflix is allowing them to get films done, but they still respect all the platforms available. I think filmmakers are very fluid.”

The SPC chief said he saw no danger that a generation of movie-watchers, used to seeing independent films on VOD platforms instead of in cinemas, might cease to associate independent films with the big screen. He suggested that the industry was still learning its way around new models of distribution.

“We’re in a testing period, a transitional period” of many more distributors than before, with different agendas, Barker said. It now falls on producers and filmmakers to understand where their film might best fit.

“At Sony Pictures Classics, we try to evolve with the times,” he said. “When DVD sell-through disappeared, we understood we could no longer finance a project at the same level as before. Financially you have to evolve with the times; in marketing you evolve through the use of social media. Film culture and tastes evolve. There are always a new set of challenges that change all the time, but film has survived.”

The annual Film London Production Finance Market aims to connect producers and financiers of film and TV drama via face-to-face sessions that allow attendees to identify new business partners and potential investment. This year’s edition runs Tuesday and Wednesday.