1. There are few other studios that are as closely associated with the work of directors as Sony Pictures Classics. It seems like a company designed for filmmakers.
TOM BERNARD: When somebody gives us a script, the first question we ask is about the director. It’s not about the actor; it’s not about the script; it’s about how the story is going to be told. That is one of the key factors when we make a decision to get involved with a movie. If you look at a Pedro Almodóvar script and read the story … well, why would we buy that script? We buy that script because Pedro Almodóvar is going to tell that story.
MICHAEL BARKER: In the independent film world especially, and quite often in the mainstream world as well, even considering the fact that it’s such a collaborative art, we find the prime movers of great films are the directors—their personalities, their skills, their sense of storytelling. And as a company, that is our mantra.
2. You’ve had long-standing relationships with many directors. How do you work with filmmakers to help them to do their best work?
BERNARD: We leave them alone. When they give us a script with a budget that we like and the talent, and we’ve gone into business with them, we say, great, make the movie and show it to us when it’s over. But we also trust that they will adhere to what they say they’re going to do beforehand; so it’s not carte blanche, it’s a mutual agreement and mutual respect.
3. So it’s very much hands off? Do you have contact with the directors while they’re making the film?
BARKER: We were at a DGA event several years ago, and were at a table with Francis Ford Coppola and he said to us, ‘You guys always adhere to this rule that the filmmakers have final cut. What a lot of people don’t realize is when you give 99 percent of filmmakers final cut, they want to please you so much more than if you didn’t give them the final cut.’ I hadn’t thought about it like that until he said that, and the fact is there are many filmmakers who ask our advice, even though they’re not obligated to.
4. Is it important in your decision making to know how you would market a film?
BERNARD: Yes, it’s very important. We don’t buy movies we don’t think we can make work. I think it’s a disservice to a filmmaker to buy their movie and not have an idea of how they’re going to be able to make it work in the marketplace. We’re not collecting things, we’re going into business to exploit the movie and get as many people as possible around the world to see it.
5. How do you find new directors and cultivate new talent?
BERNARD: You never know where they’re going to come from. One day a movie shows up, somebody says, ‘Hey, take a look at this,’ and you think, ‘Wow, that’s a voice we’ve never seen.’ But we have a lot of first-time filmmakers. All the way back to one of Stephen Frears’ early films. There are a lot of people who have shown up here and you can see the talent in the filmmaking, and that goes a long way. It speaks to us.
6. How have new platforms of distribution and changes in a film’s post-theatrical life changed how you work?
BARKER: When Tom and I were together at the beginning, in the early ’80s—even before video became a big deal—in the independent world, theatrical was where you paid the most attention and where everything happened. Theatrical is still primary in creating the profile of the film that causes it to come into the audience’s zeitgeist and to last forever. But these days, if you want to survive you have to pay attention to every single media market. You have to pay attention to airlines, to VOD, you have to pay attention to DVD, free television, pay television. International has become so much more important than ever before. And in order to survive in the post-global economic crisis, if you’re in the independent film business, you have to pay attention to everywhere there’s a revenue stream in a way you didn’t before. And every movie is different as to what is the strongest revenue stream.
7. What does the emergence of new windows of distribution mean for directors?
BARKER: Because of Internet distribution, this is the greatest time ever for a filmmaker to have their work seen by the public. There are more ways than ever to get your work seen. Every movie has an avenue to reach the public, either at Sundance or other festivals or YouTube. Filmmakers can pick and choose where they want their films to be seen. Google just announced 200 new channels for YouTube. So a filmmaker can choose where his film fits best. And this is just the beginning.
8. Are these new platforms going to be able to make up for the decline in DVD revenue?
BARKER: We are in such an embryonic state of where those revenues are coming from. There’s great life there but you can’t say anything definitive because every film is very different in what those revenues are. It’s almost like the birth of a new industry; it’s too early to speculate when it’s going to totally equal or surpass what DVD is, and there are also so many new technologies.
9. How serious is the problem of Internet theft to the independent film business?
BERNARD: If piracy continues as it is now it’s the end of the business as we know it. It’s a disaster. If piracy is not addressed seriously in the next two years, the film business will go the way of the music business. We’ve put in our own checks and balances. With [Woody Allen’s] Midnight in Paris we did not put out any screeners. I’ve seen films pirated from festival copies. There has not been a strong enough campaign to stop this. Young people need to be educated about it. The fact that this is wrong has not been put into our cultural zeitgeist. This is critical on every level. Look what happened to the music industry. It’s brought back some of its business with iTunes and other things, but the damage is done.
10. How has Sony Classics managed to survive while so many independent distribution companies have gone out of business?
BARKER: Tom and I are very disciplined in our approach, and are cost effective with our selections. The first [criteria] is whether a movie stands the test of time years down the road. But we also look at how a film reflects where we are in that moment in time, how it is a part of the news, how it fits in what the mood is now. So we look at a film in the long term and in the present. And we are flexible enough to respond quickly. This is how I think we’ve been able to survive downturns in the market. We saw the downturn in DVD coming and we adjusted. This business is like a flowing river and the minute you stop responding to it, that’s when you have problems.