Sony Pictures Classics co-chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who are being feted by the Zurich Film Festival with the event’s GameChanger Award, took part today in a Zurich Summit panel about their careers and the state of the specialty business.
The duo have spent their lives dedicated to the theatrical sector and the promotion of arthouse movies, work that has resulted in more than 150 Academy Award nominations for SPC titles, including Best Picture candidates The Father, Call Me By Your Name, Amour, Whiplash, Capote, Midnight In Paris, An Education, Howards End and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
During a diverting and welcome trip down memory lane, Barker told the audience how he had first met Bernard during a Secret Santa in the late 1970s. The duo previously worked together at UA Classics and Orion Classics . “It’s impressive you haven’t killed each other by now,” moderator Roeg Sutherland of CAA Media Finance quipped. “What has been the key to your longevity together?” he asked.
“Do you want to be the king? No. The movies are the king,” Bernard replied. “We both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we’ve stayed involved in everything. The trailers, the posters, the minutiae.”
Barker commented: “As Tom says, ‘when something goes wrong, there’s always a plan B.’”
The duo credited their small but loyal team as key to their sustained run, including acquisitions and marketing execs Dylan Leinert and Carmelo Pirrone. “We’ve still got the same 25 people who have worked with us for decades. We like to have a lot of young people on staff because they keep us young.”
“Sony always wanted a quality films label,” explained Barker. “They courted us when we were at Orion. The Japanese were very interested in a quality brand and in the talent that would bring. They thought very long-term.”
Co-existing with the streamers has been just the latest challenge for SPC, which was founded in the early 90s by Bernard, Barker and Marcie Bloom. But the streamers are not foes, explained Bernard.
“We don’t see streamers as competitors. We had a lot of competitiors in the 80s and 90s. Every company is different today. Everyone has a different model. There’s no uniform way. Look at all those traditional studios. They release films in so many different ways now. One advantage is that at Sony we don’t have a platform, as Tom Rothman said. That gives us flexibility. But for SPC, theatrical is still key. Movie stars are made on the screen, not the stream.”
He noted that the streamers are heavily involved in arthouse film, including acquisitions. “When the pandemic hit we organised all our titles in terms of TV opportunities. We went to the streamers with a slate. It turns out platforms like HBO Max are very interested in foreign language films…We could get good deals during the pandemic. People were knocking down our door trying to buy The Father.”
The duo cited box office and critical smash Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as a “gamechanger” for the foreign language business. “It changed the world of subtitles. People came out and didn’t even know it had subtitles. It was action, romance, it was a game-changer.”
They were also asked to name their favourite directors. Barker cited Louis Malle as “one of my best friends: I loved having dinner with him” and Guillermo Del Toro as “one of the greatest conversationalists ever”. Bernard praised Ang Lee as “humble, smart, loyal and a friend”.
The brand’s pull meant that right from the start they were often able to beat out deep-pocketed rivals. Bernard recalled how Harvey Weinstein had offered millions for Howards End in the early 90s, but producer Ismael Merchant was happy to take $1M from SPC, making it one of their first major acquisitions.