Magazine article Variety

Masters of Film Arts

Magazine article Variety

Masters of Film Arts

Article excerpt

ONE KEY ADVANTAGE OF RUNNING a film company together is that it's possible to be two places at once. That came in handy on a recent night at the Toronto Inti. Film Festival when Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics - and this year's recipients of Variety's Visionary Award - canvassed the town. They both attended screenings of "Leviathan," the Russian film they picked up at Cannes, and "Infinitely Polar Bear," starring Mark Ruffalo. Then Barker stopped at an event for Martin Scorsese, while Bernard attended back-to-back dinners. They reunited later that evening to haggle over an acquisition deal for the buzzy Julianne Moore drama "Still Alice."

It's no wonder that after working in tandem for three decades, Barker and Bernard have perfected a way to navigate an industry that demands constant nurturing of relationships, a keen eye for talent and movies, and the financial discipline to survive the volatility of a business that has seen many of their indie rivals, including Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures, go bust or reinvent like Focus Features and Miramax. Sony Pictures Classics has remained unchanged because Barker, 60, and Bernard, 62, have always stuck to their knitting.

"The fact of the matter is, the principles that we started with are still the same," Barker says. "We're very auteur-driven. We're very cost-effective." But they've also had to adapt to a swiftly changing market. "We keep up with all that's going on, whether it's the technology, the directors, the stories that are being told," says Bernard. SPC relies not only on ticket sales but revenue from VOD, airline sales and Himes to compensate for shrinking DVD receipts.

The duo, whose partnership is one of the longest in Hollywood history, have shepherded over 500 films since they started working together in 1979 at the New York office of Films Incorporated, where Barker sold 16mm films to prisons and libraries, and Bernard focused on theatrical distribution. They then oversaw United Artists Classics and Orion Classics, two studio arthouse divisions that served as the template for SPC, which they launched in 1992 as an autonomously run unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Over the past 22 years, SPC has landed 114 Oscar nominations and 28 wins with such acclaimed pictures as "Capote" and "Blue Jasmine," foreign-language hits "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "A Separation," and documentaries like "Searching for Sugar Man." This year, the company will undoubtedly figure into the awards race with "Foxcatcher," "Whiplash," "Mr. Tlirner" and "Love Is Strange."

Since its inception, SPC has been profitable every year except for one. Consquently, the co-presidents run the shingle without any interference from their corporate bosses, and are also protected by a longtime provision in their contracts.

They've managed to stay afloat in a tough indie market by keeping a tight rein on costs. "We went through a long period of time of people saying we're too conservative, we didn't spend the way we should," Barker says. "But after the 2008 economic implosion, we haven't had those comments." That means no corporate jets or town cars. When they need to hitch a ride, they'll hail a cab, which baffled "Foxcatcher" star Steve Carell. "You don't have a car that drives you around?" he asked.

The hands-on leaders preside over their Manhattan office with a staff of 25 - the same number as when they started. "Michael and I are very involved in the marketing, the theaters, the acquisitions," Bernard says. "We didn't elevate ourselves out of the process."

The pair share a common background, which they credit for their seamless working relationship. …

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