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Barry Reardon’s Blockbuster Effect on Film Distribution

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When most of us go to the movies, all we have to worry about is picking one movie and one theater.

Imagine if you were the person responsible for persuading theater owners to buy that movie for 3,000 or more screens. And as if that weren’t enough, imagine that you had to know not only about your new movie but about those of your competitors on all of the nation’s roughly 35,000 screens.

For as long as most people can remember at Warner Bros., that person was Barry Reardon.

Reardon, who retired March 19, spent 21 years--including 17 as distribution chief--at the company that during his tenure became Hollywood’s Tiffany studio in terms of winning performance: Sixteen out of 20 years, Warner Bros. ranked among the top three studios in North American box-office market share. Eight years it placed first and five years it was second.

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Even during the studio’s recent rough ride from January 1997 to November 1998, when box-office results finally began to turn positive, Warner remained in the top three--an enviable position considering that it had suffered its worst spate of flops in nearly two decades.

Praise and blame could be laid in part on Reardon’s shoulders. While production executives and studio heads are responsible for making movies, the marketing department has to sell those movies to the public and distribution has to convince theater owners to choose their films over other studios’ pictures.

Exhibitors and rival distributors alike credit this 31-year movie business veteran--dubbed the “dean of distribution"--with helping to “revolutionize” how movies are both marketed and released.

“It’s absolutely true. Barry single-handedly changed the way distribution is looked at as an art form in the business today,” says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox’s Domestic Film Group.

In ways large and small, from keeping tabs on daily and weekend box office to expanding the traditional summer release period to something as mundane as shipping movies to theaters on larger reels, Reardon changed the way his company, and the industry, did business.

“Barry was my mentor for many years and I can tell you his understanding of numbers and the business is unparalleled,” Sherak says. “He is one of the few people who really did change the game. Everyone who knows anything will tell you he revolutionized this business and he is a visionary. We all learned from him directly or indirectly, although a lot of us won’t admit it. That said, I take a quote from a great general in summing up Barry: Old film buyers don’t die, they just fade away.”

Joins Village Roadshow, Expands Consulting Role

Fade? Hardly. Reardon will remain under contract as a consultant to Warners for the next two years. Barely out the door a week, he joined the board of Australia’s distribution giant Village Roadshow Ltd. and its L.A. production arm, Village Roadshow Pictures, whose films Warner Bros. releases in the U.S. and some international markets.

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Where Reardon’s previous influence was restricted by his role as a Warner executive, being “retired” as a consultant-for-hire allows him to spread his “influence” much further. Several studio chiefs confide privately they will seek his counsel not only on distribution, but marketing strategy and cost-cutting measures.

Long before mainstream media became obsessed with weekend box-office stories, Reardon in the early 1980s started coming into work on Saturday and Sunday to track grosses at key theaters.

When asked about it today, he jokes, “I don’t know if that’s a positive when you think about how everyone is so consumed with it these days.”

The summer season traditionally began Memorial Day and ended Labor Day, and Reardon helped boost business by opening “summer” films in early May and in the dog days of August as well, which had always been considered a dead time for moviegoing.

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In 1993, “Dave” marked Warner Bros.’ first effort to expand summer. After that film’s success in opening on May 7, Reardon realized early May could be a prime time to open a movie, and in 1996 he decided to open “Twister” on May 10, which gave the film a wide-open slot ahead of Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible.”

Reardon also had a reputation for never couching the truth with studio brass or filmmakers. “I hated it when he’d tell me [a film] wasn’t going to work,” says producer Steven Reuther (“Message in a Bottle”). “Absolutely hated it. But he’d tell you the truth if you ask. Don’t want to hear it? Don’t ask.”

Sometimes when producers thought they had a sure-fire hit that could be released at any time during a peak season, Reardon would protect them against their own poor judgment.

“The Fugitive” producer Arnold Kopelson concedes “his [Reardon’s] selection of the Aug. 6 release date [in 1993] wound up being pure genius"--end of summer and out of the crunch period for summer movies. “Before then, major films were never released at the beginning of August.”

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Helped Develop the Movie Marketing System

Incidentally, Kopelson also has Reardon to thank for keeping his film “Eraser” in theaters throughout the highly competitive summer of 1996 (“Mission: Impossible,” “Independence Day” and “The Rock,” among others) long enough to nudge the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film over $100 million.

Reardon also pushed for shipping film on 6,000-foot reels to reduce the sometimes awkward jumps when the old 2,000-foot reels (six for a 2-hour movie) were spliced together. It also greatly reduced the chance that a projectionist would show the smaller reels out of sequence.

In the early ‘80s, a release was considered wide when it went out on 800 screens. Under Reardon’s watch, that was eventually more than tripled.

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But the jewel Reardon put in Warner’s crown is the studio’s proprietary Movie Marketing System, a modern marvel of a database that is the envy of every other studio in town.

Reardon, his Warner successor and longtime friend Dan Fellman and Don Tannenbaum, vice president of Warner Systems and Development, developed the massive, sophisticated tracking system.

Only four people at Warner Bros. have full access to the information that has been compiled: Fellman, marketing president Brad Ball and studio co-chairmen Bob Daly and Terry Semel.

It allows Warner Bros. to keep an instantly accessible inventory of all trailers on every picture--its own and rivals'--marketed within the last 10 years, and a running tally on the grosses.

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The system also allows marketing executives to look at any actor’s track record, not only in terms of box office but with critics. This allows executives to steer a film with a particular actor away from a critic who has had problems with that actor.

It also breaks down production and marketing costs and audience demographics--not just for Warner Bros. movies, but competitors’ films as well.

“Basically, it gives us a rolling glimpse of everything that has happened in the industry over the last 10 years and is a gauge to help us judge what’s to come,” Reardon says. “We started thinking six years ago that we needed something to really take us into the 21st century. We think this is it.”

Many say that with Reardon’s exit, a chapter closes.

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“Things will never be the same,” says director Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever,” “A Time to Kill”).

“My first movie at Warner was ‘Lost Boys.’ A lot of executives . . . didn’t know what I was making. They’d ask: ‘Are you making a horror or a comedy?’ I’d say, ‘Yes.’ Barry didn’t have to ask. He got it. He really is one of the last great gentlemen in this business--kind, honest, consistent, smart and a man of his word. Truly an era just walked out the door.”

Warner Bros. co-chairman Daly agreed. “I used to always bet Barry on the grosses. He’d lose, I’d get his house. . . . For years we did this. I knew all his houses. But he didn’t tell me about that one in Vero Beach [Fla.] where he’s headed now. All the years he threatened retirement and we kept him here, I knew I didn’t have to worry because I kept winning the bet and the keys to his house. I knew he was serious this time because he never told me about Vero Beach.”

Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, Reardon’s longtime friend and sometime adversary, not only at Paramount Pictures but as owner of the National Amusements cinema chain, says, “Barry was one competitor who insisted on getting his way. . . . The clincher was he did it in such a gentlemanly way it could really be irritating.”

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It was a sad day for Warner Bros. when Reardon retired, Redstone concluded, “but a great day for the rest of us. He’s available.”


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