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Savvy kings of the art house

TILDA SWINTON has a mischievous gleam in her eye when she spots Michael Barker backstage at the grand old Elgin Theatre, where her new film, “Thumbsucker,” was making its debut during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Looking elegant in black tuxedo jacket and pants, the actress glides over to Barker, who runs Sony Pictures Classics with his longtime partner, Tom Bernard. Waiting until she is standing right in front of him, Swinton flashes open her jacket, revealing a purple “Thumbsucker” T-shirt, the same shirt Barker is wearing.

“Great minds think alike,” she says with delight, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

Like innumerable other actors and filmmakers, Swinton is fond of Barker and Bernard because the veteran Sony Classics team takes risks on films no one else wants. Beloved by their talent for their passion for film, loathed by their competitors for their combative style, Barker, 51, and Bernard, 53, are two of the last true believers in presenting art-house cinema for movie lovers.

In an era when many studio specialty divisions have shifted their emphasis to youth-oriented comedies or genre thrillers, Sony Classics has made eight films with Pedro Almodovar, nine with Zhang Yimou, most recently the eye-popping “House of Flying Daggers.” The two men, who’ll celebrate their 15th year running the company in December, have won Oscars with Merchant & Ivory, Errol Morris and Ang Lee, who made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with them. In the last two years alone, they’ve released such exotica as the enchanting documentary “Winged Migration,” the sublime “The Triplets of Belleville” and the hilarious “Kung Fu Hustle,” one of the year’s surprise hits. They had eight films in Toronto, including “L’Enfant,” a Belgian drama that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; “Why We Fight,” a riveting documentary about the American war machine; and “Capote,” which should put Sony Classics in the Oscar hunt this fall, thanks to a bravura performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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Swinton has clearly not forgotten it was Sony Classics that backed “Orlando,” the film that helped launch her career. In fact, she starts to nag Barker about re-releasing the film on DVD before taking the stage with the rest of the “Thumbsucker” cast. After Barker whispers last-second advice to Mike Mills, the film’s nervous director, he and Bernard retreat to the back of the theater to watch the film. After pacing nervously for a few minutes, Barker grabs my arm and pulls me into an elevator, which takes us high above the theater.

“You’re not gonna believe what you’re about to see,” he says gleefully in his Texas twang. He’s not exaggerating. Above the Elgin, like a second layer on a wedding cake, is a whole other theater, a 1914 vaudeville house called the Winter Garden that was restored in 1989 after being walled up for years. For anyone who loves movies, seeing this jewel of a theater, with its support pillars disguised as tree trunks and autumn leaves hanging from its balcony and the ceiling, is like stumbling onto a hidden tomb of a great pharaoh. And yet in all the years I’ve been coming to this festival, Barker is the only person who’s bothered to tell me about it.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he says, prowling around the balcony. “When we had ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ at the festival, I took Gerard Depardieu up here. He couldn’t believe his eyes. I mean, this is where ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ should play year-round.”

It’s easy to see why Barker has a soft spot for this marvelous old theater. In many ways, Sony Pictures Classics is a throwback itself, the last of the old-fashioned studio art-house divisions. While its competitors are eagerly emulating Fox Searchlight, which hit pay dirt by blending critical successes like “Sideways” with youth-culture films like “Napoleon Dynamite,” Sony Classics has largely stuck to the same model it had when Barker and Bernard started the company with Marci Bloom in late 1991. (Barker and Bernard’s partnership goes back to the ‘80s at Orion Classics and United Artists Classics.) If Searchlight is wooing the audience that watches “The Daily Show,” Sony Classics is aiming for the readers of the New Yorker.

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Although they are famously tight with a dollar, Barker and Bernard have an artistic credibility that’s just as important in the indie world as deep pockets. “When they bought my film I loved the idea that my poster would be next to posters of movies by Zhang Yimou and Almodovar and other great filmmakers they’ve worked with,” says director Phil Morrison, whose recent film, “Junebug,” is distributed by Sony Classics. “What really impressed me was that one of my friends went to a Max Ophuls retrospective at Lincoln Center -- and Michael Barker was there every day. When your distributor is doing that, you know it’s not just a job. They really love movies.”

Sony Classics used to buy most of its films at festivals like this one. But these days, it produces 65% of its films and acquires the rest. The business model is simple. The company relies on critics to tout its theatrical releases, using that visibility to boost profit margins in home video and pay TV. Long after the remake of “The Dukes of Hazzard” is forgotten, Sony Classics films like “Run Lola Run” and “House of Flying Daggers” will still be lucrative video titles.

“We’re building a library, we’re not building an empire,” says Bernard, who stays in shape during the festival by playing hockey with friends here. “We don’t just make money in the first year. We do it for lots of years.”

In an era when most studio films vanish from multiplexes in a matter of weeks, Sony Classics will patiently work a film for months to find a broader audience. “Triplets of Belleville,” which was released in November 2003, was still in theaters on July 4, 2004. “That’s our mantra,” says Barker. “The longer you keep a film in the theaters, the more value it’ll have down the line.”

Although rivals complain that the duo are abrasive and needlessly unpleasant in competitive situations, Bernard argues that their bad rep comes from a refusal to socialize with the competition. “In social settings,” he explains, “people share a lot of information which can sometimes lose you a movie.” And although they go out of their way to heap praise on Sony home video chief Ben Feingold, the partners have fought ferociously to keep their autonomy. “You have to remain outside the studio, because they’ll always try to get you to conform to their ways of doing business,” says Bernard. “We look at each movie individually. We have 22 movies this year, we might have 10 next year. We’re not trying to feed an international distribution pipeline, which is what other specialty divisions seem set up to do.”

Barker and Bernard’s festival exploits are legendary. Bernard was ejected from a sold-out “Roger & Me” premiere here by a fire marshal who found him sitting in the aisle without a ticket. He promptly sneaked in again, explaining, “You just have to know where all the back doors are.” Barker has slipped into screenings posing as a festival volunteer. Still, they rarely participate in festival bidding wars, preferring to walk away from a film rather than pay more than they think it is worth. It’s telling that while Searchlight and Focus Films both spent close to $7 million for films here last week, the most Sony Classics has ever shelled out for a film was $3.5 million for “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” a Tommy Lee Jones-directed picture it bought at the opening of this year’s festival.

Jones had better offers from bigger studios, but most were contingent on him cutting the film. The Sony team offered less money but assured him they liked the film as it was. They also played what Barker calls “our Texas card,” reminding Jones that they’d both gone to high school in Dallas, Bernard having played football at Jesuit High, the archrival to Jones’ school.

The duo have a canny ability to mix salesmanship with sincerity. One night Barker met with Hengameh Panahi, the sales agent for Celluloid Dreams, a French company that had 13 films here, including Sony’s “L’Enfant.” Barker told her that when he was in Telluride, Colo., he tried to get some people he met to see an obscure Asian film instead of “Walk the Line,” saying the film about Johnny Cash would be in every mall in America in weeks. “But it’s a losing battle,” he says. “I bet they saw the Cash film.”

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“That’s why you should take one of my films, even if you’re going to lose money,” Panahi responds. “If you only worry about money, you’ll just be miserable in life.” Barker is amused. He has to worry about money and worry about art, all at the same time. It’s the curse of running a specialty film company, where a blockbuster hit like “Crouching Tiger” happens once in a lifetime. Sony Classics is an artisanal business -- Barker and Bernard fret over the details of each film poster and can tell you the name of practically every theater each one of their movies is playing in.

Soon Panahi is pitching Barker another film. “It’s so good,” she says. “You’ll make money with it.” Barker laughs. “See,” he says. “She has plenty of respect for money when it comes to buying one of her films!”

The Big Picture appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Comments and suggestions can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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