The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Sony Classics takes over Toronto

September 12, 2008 |  1:58 pm


Every year the showbiz press views film festivals by the same horse-race standards, judging the winners either by which film company bought the hottest movie or which movie sold for the most money. Barker But having spent a bunch of time at this festival with Sony Pictures Classics co-chiefs Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, I realized that they operate under a very different model than everyone else. If you want to gauge how their festival went, you have to wait till long after it's over. Barker and Bernard don't ever get into bidding wars--they invariably buy movies after the festival is over, when the hot air has gone out of the balloon and the buying price has drifted back down to earth.

Call them smart shoppers. Two years ago, they bought their favorite Toronto movie, Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book," weeks after the festival was over. Their highest-profile acquisition at Cannes this spring, Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," came in late July, long after the festival closed up shop. Sony Classics has a big presence here, but as distributors, not as buyers. They have 10 films in the festival, but as buyers, they have so far kept their wallets shut. Everyone seems to know which movies they like, among them Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" and "Soul Power," an exuberant documentary about the Zaire '74 music festival, but they are clearly in no rush to close a deal.

Bernard and Barker have spent much of their time here promoting the wide array of films they'll be releasing over the next nine months, which include Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," Wong Kar Wai's rarely seen "Ashes of Time Redux," Philippe Claudel's "I Loved You So Long" (starring Kristin Scott Thomas), Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir" and Christophe Barratier's "Paris 36."

In recent years, Barker and Bernard's specialty-division rivals have dismissed the longtime Sony chiefs as old farts, wedded to an outdated art-house model, noting that their box-office numbers have been in steady decline. But the duo, who'll celebrate their 18th year together this January, may have the last laugh. They are still here while many of their specialty division detractors are out of business or undergoing major downsizing. Sony Classics' films don't do the kind of business they used to do. Their high-water mark was 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which grossed $128 million in the U.S. alone. Sony Classics' biggest hit over the past year was "The Counterfeiters," which won an Oscar and took in $5.4 million domestically. Still, the company quietly turns a steady profit each year. So how did they manage to avoid the collapse that capsized so many of their rivals?

"We're just more disciplined," says Bernard. "While others companies were embracing a gold-rush mentality and spending like crazy, we've stayed the same size as ever. We have 25 staffers--that's the whole company. So we can market our movies more inexpensively than everyone else. We want to win the war, not the opening weekend."

Their fierce desire to win has left its share of bruised feelings--their competitors say that Barker and Bernard have sharp elbows. (Bernard, who regularly plays in a celebrity hockey game up here each year, has the husky build of a veteran defenseman.) The other day Bernard came over to say hello when I was talking with Fox Searchlight's Steve Gilula--it was pretty clear from the way the two men glared at each other that no love was lost between them.

What matters most to the Sony Classics team is how snugly they fit into the bigger Sony system. "The mantra at Sony has always been about quality," says Barker. "That's the way they've looked at their hardware product line and that's the way they look at us. Everyone there wanted us to be a prestige brand that was in business for the long haul."

When the Sony Classics team eye their competitors they sound genuinely baffled by the short-term decision making at other studios. It's hard to believe, they say, that Warner Bros. shut down Warner Independent Pictures barely four years after starting it up; likewise with Paramount Vantage, which recently axed most of its staff roughly two and a half years after the company was launched. Redbelt Sony Classics has had its failures too, most recently David Mamet's "Redbelt," which it released on nearly 1,400 screens, but which only made $2.3 million in its U.S. release. The Mamet camp was furious, believing Sony had used the film's theatrical release as a glorified trailer for an upcoming DVD release.

Bernard says the company spent $10 million marketing the picture, far more than it normally spends on any of its releases. "We weren't thrilled by the movie's performance either," says Bernard. "The ultimate fighting crowd didn't think it had enough action, and the reviews weren't good enough to attract the art-house audience. So we got caught in the middle."

One thing Sony Classics rarely does is throw good money after bad. If any one expenditure has hurt today's specialty divisions, it's the massive amount of marketing money they've spent chasing after Oscar nominations. Barker and Bernard, on the other hand, are always trying to dream up new Oscar economy measures--one year only taking trade ads every other day, one year saving money by only running black-and-white ads.

For them, it all comes back to exercising discipline, which is why they expect to head home from the festival still holding off on any movie purchases. "You don't see us spending money just to establish our brand," says Barker. "That's the good thing about having been around all these years. People already know who we are."

Photo of Michael Barker (left) and Tom Bernard by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; photo of Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) and John Machado in "Redbelt" from Sony Pictures Classics.