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Sony Pictures Classics presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard offered sound advice to U.S. theater chains, while explaining the reasons behind their continued success, during a discussion at the Zurich Film Festival on Saturday about their colorful and storied partnership that has spanned more than four decades.

Zurich is honoring the duo for their services to film culture with its Game Changer Award on Sunday.  

Speaking to Roeg Sutherland, co-CEO of CAA Media Finance, at the festival’s Zurich Summit industry event, Barker and Bernard took an engaging and humorous trip down memory lane, from first working together at United Artists Classics and then at Orion Classics, before establishing Sony Pictures Classics in 1992, to working with Akira Kurosawa, and managing to reacquire “Howards End” from Ismail Merchant, despite Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to significantly outbid them.

In discussing the current state of the industry, however, Bernard expressed exasperation with the failure of most exhibitors to fully grasp the vast possibilities offered by digital technology in the face of the severe challenges posed by the pandemic.

“These are people who haven’t grasped the internet; they haven’t grasped the way business works.”

He noted that one Canadian theater chain was starting to collect names of customers in order to send them messages about new releases according to their tastes.

“That’s what Netflix did. You get three in the mail, we’ll send you three more, and you’re going to like these. And they kept the data. Theaters are not using their data. They’re not reaching out to their customers. They’re not putting movies back into the conversation. It’s starting to slowly happen, but when that happens, it will change over and people will start to go.”  

Distributors and exhibitors have to find creative ways to lure audiences back, he added, such as Sony Pictures Classics’ collaboration with Angelika Film Center to offer a two-for-one admission deal for British comedy “The Duke,” which proved a successful strategy for the film.   

“We made it a conversation in the media,” Bernard added. “It’s just getting the movie theaters up to speed with the rest of the industry.”

Bernard expressed optimism about the future of theatrical, saying the business would absolutely survive current setbacks, particularly with the huge success of comic-book franchises like “Spider-Man.” “But the theaters need to change and they’re slowly changing. In the old days all the advertising and marketing was done by the studios or the distributors, co-op advertising and all that stuff. That’s over.

“I don’t understand why a movie theater that has 500,000 names of people who have seen all their movies couldn’t organize that. I would come to them and say, ‘Hey, you’re in Minneapolis. I’d like to get everyone who has seen a Pedro Almodóvar movie to get an email and I’ll pay you for that’ – like I would buy a TV spot. They haven’t even figured out how to monetize that yet.”

He noted that it was up to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) to help bring that about and move the exhibitor business into the future, “which they will, slowly but surely.”

Barker echoed the upbeat assessment, saying, “I think that theatrical will always remain a primary. I think there’s no question theatrical is going to survive.” Even if the box office is less, the value of theatrical for people to remember those titles will remain, he added. “If you sell a movie to a streamer, they put it at the forefront of their activity for a period of time, but then what happens? It becomes part of the index. Whereas the theatrical can make it meaningful for people whether we go to theaters at that moment or whether we see it later. So there’s no question in my mind: theatrical is going to survive.

“Streamers get your movie, then they put it in a bin and you never see it again,” Barker added. “Our movies will go through a cycle of five years where they’ll play every format and then bounce back and play them again.”

A theatrical run establishes a film, he stressed. “If you’re in the theaters you get more serious people who pay attention to your movie, you get more serious media that deal with your film, and again, it’s a major part of the marketing process. But the new world order has a lot to do with how your revenues come in. The pie is different now. So your theatrical is going to be less than it was. When we started in the business it was like 80%. Now it’s a very small percentage.”

Sony Pictures Classics is in a rare position to sell movies to all major platforms, including Disney Plus, Barker noted.

Bernard added that digital media has also significantly brought down advertising costs. “It’s a lot cheaper to release a movie now with the internet. Newspaper ads were insane money. You could pay $100,000 for a full page. What you could do with $100,000 on the internet is a thousand times more than you could with a full page in a newspaper.”

Barker noted the surprises that often occur in the business that confirm a film’s quality. “During the pandemic there was a moment when we got a call from home entertainment and they said, ‘We just wanted to tell you that the most popular movie during the pandemic in our entire Sony Pictures and Columbia library is “Call Me By Your Name.”’ We were, like, what? That’s what’s unpredictable about this movie business, it’s that there are these surprises that happen that give longevity to these titles. You kind of have to trust in the quality.”