Our Favorites ’11 – Michael Barker & Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics

For the 20th anniversary of the art cinema institution, the company's co-presidents received some well-deserved kudos, but our respect for the duo goes well beyond distributing films such as...

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SonyClassics20thAnniversary

This week, we're honoring a few of our favorite films…or in today's case, people of 2011.

The day after Sony Pictures Classics had their 20th anniversary event at the New York Film Festival (which was recorded below in full, so please scroll down if you only want to hear the lively discussion), I was having lunch with a friend who had recently taken a sabbatical from the film world. Unaware of where I’d been the previous night, he incidentally described some advice given to him on the way out by Michael Barker, the co-founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which with all due respect to the lovely evening before, seemed to be the greatest tribute of all.

With nothing to gain in return, which as you might’ve heard is a rarity in this business, Barker’s words of encouragement weren’t an isolated incident. I experienced it firsthand when I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Barker’s alma mater after moving around as an army brat, and was working on a series for the student newspaper about Texas film. A lowly writer for The Daily Texan, I assumed my interview request to Mr. Barker would get lost in the shuffle, yet less than 24 hours after it was sent, he returned my call almost immediately and proceeded to spend the following 35 minutes mostly interviewing me, so much so that we never actually got around to talking about his own experience of films in Texas.

Given that his company was right in the thick of awards season (as they always are), I never felt the time was right to get back in touch and alas, I never was able to get a proper interview with him. But for a media studies major slinking around in sweatpants conducting interviews between writing term papers, the warm call from a studio exec was a short-term confidence boost and the fact that it was from one who had such a profound impact on my taste in movies was life-changing.

Even if I had never spoken to Barker, I only needed to look across the street from my dorm on Guadalupe to be reminded of his ability, and that of his partners Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, to do this. Less than 100 feet away on the opposite corner from my building was the Dobie Theater, the birthplace of the theatrical run of “Slacker.” An unlikely candidate for succeed outside of Austin until indie guru John Pierson slipped Barker a copy of the film, Richard Linklater’s breakthrough feature was ushered into the mainstream by the team at Orion Classics who would go on to become the team at Sony Pictures Classics when shortly after “Slacker”’s release, its parent company Orion went into bankruptcy. (Both an essay by Barker in Criterion’s liner notes for the film and in Pierson’s book “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes” offer rich retellings of the colorful backstory.)

There are two ironies to the “Slacker” tale –one being that Barker, Bernard and Bloom, who were so used to introducing international filmmakers such as Pedro Almodovar and Zhang Yimou to America were doing the reverse by launching what ultimately proved to be one of the beacons of American independent cinema of the ‘90s unto an unknowing world. However, the second is almost laughable now to consider a time when there was ever any instability for the partners, who smoothly transitioned from their home at Orion where they started in 1983 to Sony in 1992 and have proven time and again to be one of the most venerable and enduring companies in film, let alone the particularly treacherous waters of indie film.

It’s long been noted that the partners’ financial responsibility has been critical to Sony Pictures Classics’ success, but their instincts for great films, no matter where they come from, has been equally crucial. They’ve unearthed gems from around the world such as “Run Lola Run,” “Goodbye Lenin” and “The Lives of Others,” animated wonders including “Persepolis” and “The Triplets of Belleville,” documentaries such as Chris Smith’s “American Movie,” Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job" and Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and championed some of the most important American filmmakers at career turning points from Todd Haynes’ “Safe” to David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls” to Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” while tending to the directorial debuts of Gary Oldman (“Nil by Mouth”), Ed Harris (“Pollock”), Vera Farmiga (“Higher Ground”) and Tommy Lee Jones (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”).

As Focus Features chief James Schamus told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, “The past 20 years of American film culture would be unrecognizable were it not for their passion, their smarts, their taste, their vision and their pure love of independent world cinema."

And Barker and Bernard haven’t slowed down. This year alone, their lineup could fill up any critic’s top 10 list and no one would bat an eyelash. “Take Shelter,” “A Separation,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Carnage” and “The Skin I Live In” are all very much in the year-end conversation and as if this year weren’t enough, they already have the rights to three of next year’s best, the Victorian era sex comedy “Hysteria,” Whit Stillman’s lovely return “Damsels in Distress,” and the breathtaking Indonesian action flick “The Raid.”

If I’ve exhausted you with the list of titles, you’ll probably feel as I did watching the credits roll on the tribute reel the New York Film Festival put together to honor Barker and Bernard’s accomplishments before fest director Richard Peña conducted an hour-long interview with them, including a rare, special appearance from Bloom, who has been a silent partner since suffering a brain aneurysm in 1996. (As noted in New York Magazine around the company’s 10th anniversary, had it not been for Sony’s health insurance plan, the next anniversary celebration might’ve been for a Barker and Bernard-run Paramount Classics.)

During the chat, Bernard and Barker talked about how they first were drawn to art films — Bernard recalled first seeing Julie Christie in “Darling” while growing up in Asbury Park and I finally heard Barker talk about driving to North Dallas to Eric Rohmer film since “we wanted to meet women like [in his films]” (4:45) – how they got their start in the business (leading to a great anecdote from Bernard about how tax breaks for real estate tycoons led to the foreign boom in the ‘70s), the tectonic shift in how specialty films changed from being studio productions to the work of specialty arms, how distribution has changed dramatically, not only on the theatrical front, but on home video and the role of film critics today. Plus, there are great stories about when they pretended "Ran" and other classic films they distributed in the early days didn't have subtitles (14:35), why it's not wise to pre-buy a Werner Herzog film (32:15), and how they were able to buy back "Howard's End" from Orion to distribute through Sony (33:50).

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that this audio doesn’t quite live up to the lofty standards of Sony Pictures Classics, some initial skips giving way to a reference to Dan Talbot as Barker’s inspiration (at 7:30) that’s not entirely audible and a few other hiccups, but otherwise, it’s more or less crisp and undoubtedly a fascinating discussion worth a listen with two of our favorite people in the film business, not just this year, but for the past twenty and hopefully the next twenty.

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