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LA Film Fest Offers Lessons on Surviving the Indie Jungle From Tom Bernard and Michael Barker

The Sony Pictures Classics co-chiefs talk about money, art and awards as they receive LAFF’s Spirit of Independence honor


George Clooney, David O. Russell and Don Cheadle have received the Spirit of Independence Award in the past from the Los Angeles Film Festival – but when it comes to honoring folks who’ve given a boost to independent film, it’s hard to quibble with this year’s decision to salute the less visible but more influential Tom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics.

As co-presidents of SPC, Bernard and Barker “really have set the gold standard for independent distribution,” LAFF artistic director David Ansen said in his introduction to the award presentation at the downtown Los Angeles festival on Monday.

(Photo at top, left to right: Barker, Ansen and Bernard.)

Their company has won 32 Academy Awards for films that include “Howards End,” “Pollock,” “Talk to Her,” “The Fog of War,” “Capote,” “Inside Job,” “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Midnight in Paris,” and a remarkable 12 Best Foreign Language Film Oscars in 22 years, including three in a row from 1993 to 1995 and four straight from 2009 to 2012.

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The foreign-language champs include “Amour,” “A Separation,” “The Lives of Others” and “All About My Mother” – and they became the subject of a funny story in the second half of the program, when director Ang Lee and writer-producer James Schamus joined Bernard, Barker and Ansen to talk about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the Lee film that is SPC’s top-grossing release.

At the Oscars in 1994 and 1995, Lee’s films “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” were nominated in the foreign category; both years, Schamus remembered, they lost to Sony Classics films – and both years, Schamus had pointed out Bernard and Barker to Lee at the Oscars, and told the director that SPC films were going to win.

“The first year we won, Ang turned to James and said, ‘I want you to get me those guys!'” said Barker. “The next year when we won…” he said, ‘I told you to get me those guys!'”

And when we put out ‘Crouching Tiger’ [in 2000] and it won, he turned to James at the Governors Ball and said, ‘You got me those guys!'”

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(Nobody mentioned which SPC films had beaten Lee’s movies in 1994 and 1995, partly because Schamus called the first winner “a really shitty movie.” But for the record, the winners were Fernando Trueba’s “Belle Epoque” and Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun.”)

The Oscar story was just part of a freewheeling, wide-ranging and entertaining conversation between Bernard, Barker and Ansen, one that ranged from the movies that turned each of them on to cinema (“Rio Bravo” for Barker, “Tom Jones” for Bernard) to the future of independent film.

Bernard and Barker met in 1979 at United Artists (Bernard said they drew each other’s names in the Christmas gift exchange), a company known for its devotion to filmmakers.  They formed UA Classics, then Orion Classics, then launched SPC in 1992.

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“We sat down with [United Artist executives] Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, who told us, ‘You have to understand that the creative decisions an executive makes start and stop with the filmmakers you back,'” said Barker. “That’s how Tom and I got into it, and that’s been a through-line for us.”

Those filmmakers have included early champions Louis Malle and Akira Kurosawa, as well as Pedro Almodovar, Wim Wenders, Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme and many others; while many other studio-based independent film divisions have gone under, SPC has stayed in business and consistently turned a small profit, due in part to its principals’ thrifty ways.

“People call us cheap,” said Bernard on Monday, “and we smile.”

The two men’s stories included personally sifting through 100,000 still photos from the set of “The Raid” to decide which ones would go into the press kit; making on-the-spot deals for films ranging from “The Lives of Others” to the upcoming documentary “Red Army” and having a short-lived foray into IMAX programming at the behest of the parent company, which was losing money on large-format films and demanded the SPC touch.

“Everyone in Hollywood seems to want to be somebody else,” said Barker. “They want to be that next guy. We never wanted to be the next guy.”

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These days, they said, the business has changed fundamentally – and not just in the market for subtitled films, where the top movies do better than ever but the smaller films struggle to find an audience.

“When we started, theatrical was the primary,” said Barker. “Now you have to think of every possible revenue stream that comes your way.”

“Which we do,” added Bernard with a smile. “Airlines can be very very big.”

Inevitably, the conversation turned to SPC’s biggest hit, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which screened at LAFF after the presentation and conversation. The film won four Oscars and made $128 million, more than double the company’s second-place release, “Midnight in Paris.”

SPC stepped in during pre-production of “Crouching Tiger” after a financier had dropped out, helping to back a $14 million budget because they were convinced the film could attract far more than the usual foreign-language arthouse crowd.

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To that end, they staged early screenings for rappers in the Wu Tang Clan and for female athletes, and booked it into the Magic Johnson Theatres in Harlem, where it was the first subtitled movie ever.

(Bernard, Barker and Lee dropped in on an opening-weekend screening there, and figured they were in good shape when one patron ran into the lobby at the end of the first fight scene and screamed for all the multiplex to hear, “The good one’s in theater nine!”)

But before they even released it, Bernard and Barker remembered, they had to stave off some well-meaning interference from a rival studio chief who did not exactly grasp the SPC style.

“The film showed in Cannes and was an unbelievable success,” said Barker. “John Calley was the head of Sony Pictures at the time, and he called us and said, ‘I just got a call from the head of another studio.'”

Bernard broke in. “He had mouse ears,” he said.

“No no no,” insisted Barker quickly. “John said the other studio head told him, ‘You should take the film away from those guys, dub it into English and release it in 2,500 theaters.’ And John told him, ‘No, Tom and Michael have a contract, and they can release the movie any way they want.'”

He grinned. “And we made $128 million.”

At the end of the conversation, Schamus summed it up. “You saw it here tonight,” he said. “The thing that you do when you sit down with Michael and Tom, more than anything else, is that you talk about movies.”

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