For decades, the Weinstein Co.'s Harvey Weinstein and the principals of Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, have competed for indie-film supremacy, each side laying claim to the prestige movies throne.
That rivalry finds itself with a new spin this year: Sony Pictures Classics emerges from the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival with an awards front-runner, while Weinstein, who often has early contenders, is still searching for a likely candidate.
Long before audiences start thinking about the Oscar season, the Weinstein Co. and Sony Pictures Classics are arraying their forces in the hope of landing awards recognition and the commercial breakouts that come with it. And they're doing it in typically divergent ways: Weinstein with money and media, Sony Pictures Classics with a movie-first tack that relies on word of mouth more than marketing.
"It's amazing after something like 30 years these guys are both still going strong," said Jonathan Dana, a producer and longtime prestige-film veteran. "But they're very differently run. Harvey is playing American League ball and Tom and Michael are playing National League ball."
The rivalry didn't happen overnight, nor is it incidental. SPC and the Weinstein Co., both based in New York, are the last dedicated prestige players standing in a landscape that once featured a number of heavyweights, including Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent and the recently overhauled Focus Features, which is no longer regarded as a player in this game. ("12 Years a Slave" distributor Fox Searchlight and, on the other end of the spectrum, a handful of smaller entities still sometimes compete in the prestige-film realm too.)
The thinning of the ranks — and the strong personalities involved — has further intensified the duel between SPC and Weinstein. (Weinstein, Barker and Bernard would not comment for this article.)
This year could bring some fresh twists. The Weinstein Co. hasn't gone a season without a best picture nominee since 2007-2008. On the other hand, SPC, whose movies, particularly its foreign-language titles, can garner some of the best reviews around, has nabbed just two best picture slots in the last four years, for Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," which premiered at Cannes in 2011, and Michael Haneke's French-language elderdrama "Amour," which premiered at Cannes in 2012.
At stake is more than just pride. Sony Classics has some financial stability thanks to its corporate owner, Sony Pictures, and its famously frugal approach. Weinstein, on the other hand, has seen its financial fortunes roller coaster in recent years, and its continued ability to survive as an independent entity depends in part on ginning up critical and commercial breakouts every year.
Both companies' maneuvering was on display in Cannes, the first battleground of many in the season to come. And it was SPC that drew first blood.
After 10 days of high-profile premieres, the clear favorite for U.S. art-house success was SPC's "Foxcatcher." The movie tells the fact-based story of John du Pont, a scion of the famously wealthy family, who killed wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996.
SPC threw a lunch in an upscale beachside restaurant for the film's cast, which includes Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, as American journalists packed the room hoping for a piece of the new darling. Barker and Bernard circulated, beaming.
Though their company was not central to the film's production — the movie was financed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures and bequeathed to them by Sony Pictures after shooting was completed — SPC executives were heavily involved in the edit room and are now the movie's sole marketers and distributors.
SPC also had multiple Cannes premieres of movies that could contend in other categories, including documentary darling "Red Army," about the Soviet hockey team; Zhang Yimou's period political drama "Coming Home," a foreign-language hopeful; Mike Leigh's J.M.W. Turner biopic "Mr. Turner," which earned Timothy Spall an acting prize at the festival; and the Cannes-acquired "Wild Tales," a fan favorite from Argentina, for which Pedro Almodóvar is executive producer, that could also compete in the foreign-language category.
Weinstein, meanwhile, was struggling to make a splash.
Contrary to 2011, when Weinstein bought "The Artist" at Cannes and rode it all the way to a best-picture Oscar, he acquired no finished films at the festival. In fact, Weinstein had just two movies screening at the prestigious gathering: the Jessica Chastain romantic drama "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," a well-liked movie that is nonetheless not considered a big awards player at this time, and "Grace of Monaco," the widely panned tale of Grace Kelly that garnered more attention because of a fight Weinstein was having with the French filmmakers than for anything in the movie itself.
That wasn't stopping Weinstein from trying to generate some Cannes heat. Standing in a hotel ballroom filled with journalists and foreign distributors, with plates of gourmet desserts and seafood all around, Weinstein made a pitch for his upcoming films, which include the Benedict Cumberbatch code-breaking tale "The Imitation Game" and Nazi art picture "Women in Gold," starring Ryan Reynolds.
"George Clooney said we [should] call it 'Monument Man,' " Weinstein said of "Women in Gold," attempting a joke as he also dropped a name. When he realized the quip wasn't quite landing, he pivoted to "I didn't think it was a good idea either."
Longtime industry players caution against counting Weinstein out. Even if there isn't a contender currently on its slate, the company, they say, still has plenty of time to acquire a movie before the all-important fall season.
"Harvey is a wild card," said United Talent Agency agent Rena Ronson, who has frequently done business with the Weinstein Co. "He's not afraid to make a big play and spend a lot of money doing it."
Though Weinstein, with his bold promises and colorful personality, garners more ink, Bernard and Barker are indelible in their own right. The two have a kind of Felix and Oscar dynamic, Bernard an imposing hockey player, and Barker a more professorial type.
They operate in the industry with a united front — each is rarely referred to independent of the other — and run a small office with longtime deputy Dylan Leiner at Sony's Midtown Manhattan headquarters, in contrast with Weinstein's downtown digs in the city's TriBeCa neighborhood.
Historically, the rivalry between Weinstein and SPC hasn't necessaily been cordial.
The executives and their teams toil at festivals side by side but rarely socialize or engage with each other.
The parties have also battled at the Oscar podium numerous times, going back years, such as in 2001, when SPC blockbuster and best-picture nominee "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sought an edge over Weinstein's Miramax best-picture nominee, "Chocolat," or in 2011, when SPC's "Midnight in Paris" challenged "The Artist." (The players have carried out the rivalry at different companies, including when Barker and Bernard oversaw Orion Classics and Weinstein ran Miramax.)
Whispers from those aligned with each player often call out flaws on the other side, including Weinstein's focus on politics and non-movie matters and, on the other end, SPC's volume approach to purchasing prestige movies and limited spending on individual titles.
The fact that these kinds of underground battles play out during festivals and awards season indicates how much is at stake for both companies at a time when the art-house audience is graying and true breakouts are rare. "I don't think they like each other very much," said one longtime independent-film player who requested anonymity because of his relationship with both companies. "But it's not just personal. They each know there are only so many art-house film fans to go around."