Their Motto: Think Small

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

If the marketing department at Sony Pictures Classics was to put together a newspaper ad using quotes to promote the company instead of one of its movies, they could do worse than these:

"Those guys love film, they see everything, they have good tastes, and they work like hell for their movies."

--Milos Forman

"They believe in cinema, they fight for their films, and they have a kind of passion that is rare now in our business."

--Ismail Merchant

"I've known these guys for a lot of years, and they certainly hand-release their films. They don't just throw them into a machine with a setup and hope they make money."

--Robert Altman

Three blind calls, three rave reviews. And you'd have to make a lot more calls to get to that first dissenting opinion. These "guys"--Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics--enjoy a unique reputation in the art-house film distribution business. Unique for their longevity, for their high success rate and for their determination to stay small.

"We've always wanted to be in the distribution of specialized movies," says Bernard, 45, whose interests in foreign and independent film, like Barker's, were developed in college while programming film series for the student body. "We've had chances to expand and do more mainstream films, but this is all we've ever wanted to do, and we think we've got the best jobs in the business."

While other small distribution companies have been going public (New Line), going Hollywood (Miramax) or going broke (Cinecom, Vestron), the Barker-Bernard tandem, joined in the late '80s by former publicist Bloom, are content to hand-pick and release only those films they personally like and believe they can navigate to their audience in a market swollen with mainstream movies.

What kind of pictures are we talking about? Right now, Sony Pictures Classics has in release Gary Oldman's critically acclaimed British domestic drama "Nil by Mouth"; Alan Rudolph's offbeat romance "Afterglow," which features the Oscar-nominated performance of Julie Christie; Belgian director Alain Berliner's extraordinary "Ma Vie en Rose," a comedy-fantasy-drama about a 7-year-old boy who thinks he's a girl; John Sayles' Spanish-language film "Men With Guns"; and the Dutch film "Character," winner of the best foreign-language film Oscar.

In the 17 years since Bernard started the classics division at United Artists and brought Barker in from another wing of the studio, they have hand-delivered some of the best high-end movie entertainment in America. Their first acquisition was Francois Truffaut's "The Last Metro," and since then, at UA, Orion and now Sony, the team has handled such classic fare as Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva," Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Lola," Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog," James Ivory's "Howards End" and Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

When you walk into the executive suites at Sony Pictures Classics in the Sony building at Madison Avenue and 55th Street, you're struck by the fact that there are none. The three presidents have offices that, in Hollywood, might belong to purchasing agents. There's a desk, a computer, a pair of chairs for visitors, a hook behind the door for coats. The conference room where Barker, Bernard and Bloom hold their daily meeting is Burger Heaven on Madison.

Sony Pictures Classics is a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, with 25 full-time employees. But it operates as an autonomous, turn-key operation. Barker, Bernard and Bloom, the "Three Bs," pick their own films, make their own deals and develop their own marketing and distribution strategies. The key to their continued success--they claim that 85% of their films have been profitable--was established in that very first deal, with Truffaut.

"Truffaut could have got more money up front from someone else, but he was tired of never seeing any [profits] at the other end," Bernard says. "We made a very simple deal with him, and he ended up making $1.5 million as a producer's share. Then he went around the world saying, 'You ought to go with these people.' It was the best thing that could have happened."

Bernard and Barker ran UA Classics successfully for three years, while the studio's upper management was going through a severe case of post-"Heaven's Gate" stress syndrome. That 1980 Michael Cimino fiasco nearly bankrupted United Artists, and prompted its corporate parent, the TransAmerica Corp., to sell UA to MGM.

In 1983, Barker and Bernard left MGM/UA and, with their friend Donna Gigliotti as an equal partner, set up the classics division for Orion Pictures, the new company founded by the five hot executives who'd left UA a year before it blundered into "Heaven's Gate." Under their leadership, Orion became the class act of Hollywood in the '80s, just as their UA had been the class act of the '70s, and the films brought in for special handling by Barker, Bernard and Gigliotti added even more prestige.

Gigliotti went off on her own to produce films in 1985, and Marcie Bloom, a publicist at PMK's New York office, filled the void, and then some. Bloom handled both publicity and acquisitions at Orion, though she had no previous distribution experience.

"They were more confident in me than I was," says Bloom, 39. "I had never done contracts before. They said, 'What you don't know, we can teach you. You're a team player and you have good taste.' I thought they were good guys, and when you look around the film community, there are a lot of not-so-good guys."

Bloom's deal was the same as Gigliotti's. She shared titles, salary and responsibilities with Barker and Bernard.

"We always believed it was better if we were equals," says Barker, with a laugh, "so we wouldn't try to knock each other off."

Despite the broad-audience hits at Orion, and three Oscars in six years ("Amadeus," "Platoon" and "Dances With Wolves"), the company had overextended itself in-production and went into bankruptcy in late 1991. The Three Bs were left with a major decision. Do they set up their own distribution company, with the European money being offered them, or take their act to one of the other studios? The first would have given them the chance to succeed, or fail, big-time, while the second would guarantee stability in one of the most volatile areas of film distribution.

'We've had that opportunity for the big money every time we've changed companies," says Barker, 43. "To get those millions, we'd have to get out of the business we're in. You have to get into exploitation films, the 'Dumb and Dumbers,' the 'Hellraisers 4.' That's not what we wanted to do for a living."

The arrangement with Sony gives the team tremendous advantage over most of their rivals. Though they operate autonomously, they have the resources of a major studio to back them up. They have access to Sony's accounting and legal services, and they get the studio's volume rates when they buy advertising. Disney-owned Miramax certainly has as many advantages, but Miramax has greater ambitions, and overhead, and today is competing more with the majors than the boutiques.

Barker says that he and his co-presidents are on salary at Sony and don't share directly in the profits from their films, as they did at Orion. But there are discretionary bonuses, and since the division has made money for Sony every year, he says the sweeteners have been significant.

In the meantime, it's been business as usual--well, almost usual--for the Three Bs. Bloom is the point person on acquisitions, but since November 1996, when she suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm, Bloom has been struggling just to make deals with her own body.

"I'm having to relearn everything," says Bloom, who emerged from a long coma paralyzed on her entire left side. "I'm beginning to walk with a cane now, but it's a slow process. It was a wake-up call to slow down."

Bloom's aneurysm occurred at the Sony Classics office. She complained of a headache, went to get an aspirin and collapsed. Barker and Bernard got her to a hospital, and she underwent an immediate tracheotomy and brain surgery. Four months later, the classics team's five-year contract was up, and all three were signed for another five years.

"I can't think of two people who could be bigger friends or supporters than Michael and Tom," says Bloom, who has slowed but not stopped. The others say she was instrumental in their recent pickup of the Brazilian film "Central Station," which has since become an audience hit at Sundance and the winner of the top prize at last month's Berlin Film Festival.

Barker and Bernard handle most of the company's marketing and distribution functions, and among the three, they cover all of the major film festivals in the world. Not that they make many deals at festivals these days.

"That whole business has changed," Barker says. "We used to go to Sundance looking for films, but now that it's this huge media event, we go to launch films that we've already bought."

Sony Classics releases between 12 and 20 movies a year, and the selections are made by a simple majority. When two of the three presidents want a movie, they go for it.

"We have very different backgrounds, and that helps us make decisions," says Bernard, who sees himself as the team populist, the suburban Everyman with mainstream tastes. "Michael studied acting with Stella Adler, he's a big reader, and he goes to the theater religiously. And Marcie was a great publicist with great tastes when we brought her in. She knows the value of talent, how it can be exploited in the marketplace."

The Sony team, like its rivals, follows available films at every stage from development to completion and jumps in when they're fairly certain they can make money for themselves and the filmmakers. To get "Ma Vie en Rose," a film by a first-time director that was developed through the European equivalent of the Sundance Institute, Barker made a hasty trip to Paris.

"Marcie had stayed in touch with the producers throughout, and when we heard the film was out of the lab and about to be screened for the first time, I rushed over there. After the screening was over, I walked 20 paces to an outside cafe, sat down with the producers and made the deal."

On another occasion in Paris, Bernard caught an early screening of Jean-Paul Rappeneau's French version of "Cyrano de Bergerac," without subtitles, and immediately convened a telephone conference with his partners in New York.

"Tom said, 'I didn't understand a word of it, but it's one of the greatest things I've ever seen,' " Bernard recalls. "We bought it right away."

The Sony team say that once they see a movie they agree they want, it usually takes less than half an hour to come up with a price.

"When we evaluate product, how we're going to sell it, where it's going to play, what it's going to cost to release, we can go sit in a room for about 20 minutes and pretty much know its value," Bernard says. "We'll make an offer. . . . If it's not enough for the filmmaker, we move on."

Adds Barker: "I don't think we'd be in business if the movie went to the highest offer every time. Many times, we're not the highest bidder, but because of overages [profit shares], people can make more money with us. We paid $1 million for 'Howards End.' I know Merchant Ivory had offers as high as $5 million, but they went with us knowing they'd make more on overages, and they did."

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