Taking the long view

Generally, the tortoise doesn’t beat the hare in Hollywood.

No matter what Aesop’s fable suggests, show business winners are deemed to be films like “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” “Transformers” -- blockbusters that start off at a sprint and never slow down. There’s only one small corner for patience in the film world, and you can find it at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year’s festival gathering opened Wednesday without many U.S. distributors -- here-today, gone-tomorrow outfits like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures that were done in by either liberal spending, tightfisted ownership or a combination of both.

But one of the most enduring buyers of independent film, Sony Pictures Classics, is back once again on the French Riviera and hungry for action. The tiny movie unit inside the Japanese conglomerate kicked off the festival with two opening-day purchases, snapping up U.S. and Canadian distribution rights to the historical thriller “The White Ribbon” and the love story “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.”


Earlier this month, longtime Sony Pictures Classics heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard extended their contracts with their parent company for an additional four years, cementing Barker and Bernard’s partnership of some 30 years (18 of them at Sony). Yet it’s not the fidelity of Barker and Bernard’s movie marriage that has set them apart; rather, it’s their business model, combined with their long-standing relationships with acclaimed filmmakers and producers.

While some distributors of movies made outside the studio system spend more than $10 million releasing a movie and sometimes a nearly equal amount buying films, Barker and Bernard lay out a fraction of that, letting the movie sell itself. If there’s a bidding war at a film festival, it’s highly unlikely Sony Pictures Classics will be in the middle of it.

“We’re not about the opening weekend -- we’ve never been about that,” Barker says. Adds Bernard: “Our goal is if we can integrate films into the culture, they will have a long life in our library.”

The kind of money Sony Pictures Classics makes on a given movie is about equal to what Sony Pictures spends on spandex for “Spider-Man.” Though last year’s Cannes title “Synecdoche, New York” didn’t exactly set the art house circuit on fire, the movie did gross more than $3 million -- a decent return considering Sony Pictures Classics didn’t pay any money to acquire the film’s distribution rights.


And even though “The Class” and “Rachel Getting Married” will yield just a fraction of the returns Fox Searchlight is pocketing with “Slumdog Millionaire,” those two Sony Pictures Classics titles will be hugely profitable, given how little Bernard and Barker pay for acquisitions and marketing and how each film won over critics and sophisticated moviegoers.

“You look at a $3-million gross for a foreign-language film and you think, ‘There’s no way that it’s profitable,’ ” Barker says. “But it is.” Adds Bernard: “It’s like it’s your own hot dog stand. How much are you going to spend versus what you’re going to take in?”

There’s a fine line between frugality and cheapness, and some filmmakers and vendors who work with Barker and Bernard said the pair’s penny-pinching habits can sometimes be on the wrong side of the equation. Directors are encouraged to hire cabs rather than car services, actors are pointed toward commercial aircraft (business, not first class, please) and away from private jets, and advertising agencies and public relations firms know they won’t be able to pay for their holiday parties with Sony Pictures Classics’ cut-rate retainers.

Yet that very thrift is what keeps them profitable almost every year (Barker and Bernard confess to two money-losing years at Sony) and why even a tiny Sony Pictures Classics foreign-language release such as last year’s “I Served the King of England” (domestic box-office gross: $600,000) can manage a small profit, when DVD, pay-TV and airplane sales are thrown in.

“They are cautious, and as frustrating as that can be for a filmmaker, it has allowed them to survive,” says Atom Egoyan, the writer-director-producer of last year’s Cannes premiere “Adoration,” which Sony Pictures Classics opened in limited theatrical release May 8. “What I am really grateful for is that they are still around. They have been able to survive and thrive amid incredible changes and shifts in the independent film world. And they are one of the few companies around that still buys movies of a certain type.”

Indeed, it’s when Sony Pictures Classics finances more intentionally mainstream fare that it has suffered its biggest disappointments. Writer-director David Mamet’s martial arts story “Redbelt” cost Sony Pictures Classics more than $7 million to make and several million to market. But the film was too arty for fight fans and too violent for art audiences, and it grossed just $2.3 million.

A visit to Sony Pictures Classics’ New York offices illustrates how Bernard and Barker, who previously worked together at United Artists Classics and Orion Classics, keep their overhead down. There are only 27 employees (Paramount Vantage once had about 100), and Barker and Bernard involve themselves in almost every creative decision, no matter how seemingly trivial.

On a recent spring afternoon, Barker and Bernard were reviewing a potential poster for “It Might Get Loud,” a late-summer Sony Pictures Classics documentary about guitarists Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White. Rather than spend a small fortune hiring a creative advertising firm to come up with a dozen or so expensive sample posters, Sony Pictures Classics had engaged an artist in Maryland -- the relative of an office worker -- to sketch out a captivating line drawing. Price tag: $2,500.


“No job,” Barker says, “is too small for us.”

Because Barker and Bernard have a long history working in such a hands-on manner, they develop lasting relationships with filmmakers. Pedro Almodovar’s Cannes movie “Broken Embraces” will be the Spanish director’s ninth collaboration with Barker and Bernard. Among the reasons Sony Pictures Classics landed this year’s Cannes titles “The White Ribbon” and “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is Barker and Bernard’s extended associations with some of the films’ producers, one of them dating three decades.

Michael Lynton, who as Sony Pictures’ chairman and chief executive is Barker and Bernard’s boss, says Sony Pictures Classics has succeeded because it doesn’t stray from its mission. “Michael and Tom are not people who lose their sense of what something is worth in the frenzy of the moment,” Lynton says. “We think they are the greatest and are happy that they are going to be around for a long time to come.”




‘Word’ on this weekend


Sequels (or prequels or spinoffs, or whatever “Angels & Demons” is best called) are supposed to build on the success of the preceding film. But no one seems to believe that this latest thriller about faith from novelist Dan Brown and director Ron Howard will open nearly as well as 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

Even though “The Da Vinci Code” was trashed by critics after its Cannes Film Festival debut, the Tom Hanks drama debuted to a robust weekend gross of $77.1 million. “Angels & Demons” is on track to gross maybe $20 million less than that, even though the new movie has better reviews.

What gives? “The Da Vinci Code” was among the bestselling books of all time; “Angels & Demons” sold about half as many copies. Though “Angels & Demons” faces no other wide releases this weekend, it could get clipped by the expected strong second weekend for “Star Trek.” And given all that’s going on in the world, “Angels & Demons,” for all its thrills, doesn’t feel like mindless escapism. Look for “Angels & Demons” to gross about $55 million, with “Star Trek” hot on its heels.

-- John Horn