Meet the Mogul at Toronto FF

by Sydney Levine
September 12, 2010 11:04 AM
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I was honored to be asked to conduct the one-on-one interview with Bob Berney in the Meet the Mogul session in the new Filmmaker's Lounge. We had a great audience and it was so informative to hear Bob explain how he sees films, the importance of their audiences which for his films have often been underserved, and how he sees the business transitioning today. More available theaters, more available films, difficulty in recouping production budgets, and yet, after all, an optimism of what can be done building communities who love films.

Bob Berney

Bob has been a preeminent force in the international film world for more than two decades, bringing a multitude of smart, challenging and entertaining films to the screen.

He has an eye for performances and material, as evidenced by such award-winners as Marion Cotillard and Charlize Theron, Best Actress Academy Award winners for La Vie en rose and Monster, respectively; and Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Memento from Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Chris Nolan, respectively, all of whom have gone on to be among the biggest and most successful directors working in the industry today. He also has a proven track record for acquiring material that audiences want to see, including The Passion of the Christ and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

He began his career in exhibition, managing and owning movie theaters in Texas, including the Inwood Theater—one of the reigning art houses in the United States and moved into marketing and distribution.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Bob Berney founded and operated four of the most successful independent film distribution and marketing companies of the last ten years: Apparition, Picturehouse, Newmarket Films and IFC Films.

Apparition, where Berney served as CEO, was an extension of producer Bill Pohlad’s River Road Entertainment. The company released Bright Star, Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, The Young Victoria and The Runaways, garnering $33 million in theatrical gross over 8 months, along with four Academy Award nominations.

Picturehouse, a Time Warner company and joint venture between New Line Cinema and HBO, was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005. Releases included: La Vie en rose (2 Academy Awards), Guillermo del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth (3 Academy Awards), Robert Altman’s A Prarie Home Companion and Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol.

As former President and Partner of Newmarket Films, Berney oversaw the releases of many films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ ($370 million), Monster for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Academy Award, Whale Rider a breakthrough family film that also received a Best Actress nomination. Berney’s interest and the distribution operation of the company were sold to Time Warner is 2005.

IFC Films, part of Rainbow Media and the Independent Film Channel, began operations in 2000, with Berney at the helm, where he acquired and oversaw the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($240 million) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, as well as a host of additional IFC productions.

As an independent distribution and marketing consultant, Berney was responsible for the release of Christopher Nolan’s Memento for Newmarket Capital Group and Todd Solondz’s critically acclaimed Happiness for Good Machine International (now Focus Features).

Berney studied film history and production at the University of Texas in Austin. While in college, he worked as a manager/projectionist for the AMC theatre chain. After graduating with a B.A. in communications, Berney worked for AMC Theatres and later renovated the Inwood Theatre in Dallas, which he and his partners opened as an art house venue, complete with martini bar in the 1940's style art moderne lobby. There he booked his favorite foreign and independent films. "That's where I fell in love with film," recalls Berney. "At the time, showing art and independent films in Dallas was a public service, and the people of the city were truly grateful." Later, Berney sold the theatre, which is now part of the Landmark Cinema chain.

Berney lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and their two sons. Today we are waiting to hear an announcement of his next endeavor.

***
Roots in exhibition has informed Bob's intuition and hard knowledge of distribution.

When I was in Dallas in 1978-1979 setting up a home video company for H. Ross Perot, there was no film activity except for the USA Film Festival there. Bob graduated in film from University of Texas and came to Dallas from 1980 to 1989.. At that time, Sam Grogg was running the USA Film Festival (now the Dallas Film Festival). He then created Film Dallas to invest in films such as Trip to Bountiful and Kiss of the Spider Woman, both of which won Academy Awards. Sam brought the USA Film Festival to the Inwood Theater which Bob and Sam renovated as an art house venue, complete with martini bar in the 1940s style art modern lobby. It was a time when the independent film business was pretty moribund. Even Film Dallas, which was sold to New World and Sam Raimi and was cause for Bob and Film Dallas to move to L.A. did not quite succeed as New World exited feature films and went in to television.

BB:

There was nothing in Dallas except for Inwood and it became a community of film people. With the bar, people would hang out just because of the bar, including music people, USA Film Festival really made it a community center. John Cassavetes spoke there just before he died.

There is a hunger for films and the theater was like a public service, like public TV, more than just a job. It was a community experience and “putting on a show” was key. We did some adventurous stuff, including showing Shoah, an 8 hour film. Dan Talbot of New Yorker was astounded that such a show could play in Dallas.

The Inwood could not get mainstream movies. In those days theaters bid for films against each other and gave guarantees. It was rigged mostly, but once Universal called Inwood to place Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. However, that was because they were having a feud with Terry and basically wanted to dump the film. But Inwood took it and it did very well.

EXHIBITION

There is a connection for exhibition at Inwood which is similar to today’s social networking community of film lovers. Like at the Angelika in N.Y., the Arclight in L.A. and the Landmark in Westwood (L.A.). The Alamo Theater programming in downtown Austin today has extraordinary programming. The audience orders dinner and wine and between movies there is great interstitial programming.

Today Bob also sees mainstream circuits diversifying product and creating special ambiance to attract new younger audiences. Now 3D is bringing them in; major studio tentpoles are bringing them in, but that leaves room for other films as well. There is a need to theatrical experiences beyond the tent poles of the movies.

DISTRIBUTION TODAY
• There are too many films
• The system is broken
• Majors no longer have their specialty film divisions because even with successes, the money was too small for them.
• No one has filled the gap the major specialty divisions have left.

On the other hand, there are more small films being distributed than ever before. In L.A. and N.Y., 8 to 10 are released in a week. However, it is expensive to do this, and recoupment for the producers is tough. Everyone has been forced to bring their budges down, even the Europeans and the majors. Smaller companies are doing well but that may not mean the producers and investors are recouping.
DVD is declining fast, especially if there is no theatrical release. This is true across the board, although in special cases, while major films’ DVD rentals are down, indies’ sell through is sometimes quite strong, especially when the indies themselves are direct distributors. While 3D is helping theatrical, it is not helping the ancillary markets.

The indies are trying hard to find new ways of marketing and are more innovative with DVD, on line, day-and-date releases. And it seems to be working. Magnolia is doing very well integrating DVD (which sells strong for them), theaters, HD channel. All is controlled by them.

Smaller distributors are doing well because they are small. You can’t consider box office gross, declining DVD as analyzed by outside companies who are looking at the macro with a Top 10 mentality. This belies the real success stories. The indies are not a horse race.

ONLINE DISTRIBUTION

We all know it is not yet bringing in the money. The big players now are Netflix, Ryan Kavanaugh (Relativity) and Epix. Add to them Amazon and Google, and of course iTunes, perhaps You Tube and there is the chance that these could change the rocky road the indies are now traveling. Netflix has not reached the level of HBO (yet) but it is similar in that the amounts paid are tied to box office gross. Indies who could not get pay TV deals will perhaps get deals with Netfllix. Epix itself is amazing. It is not yet up and running in the cable TV world, but it if offering a new model and its technology is flawless. It can go into the home, on the phone, onto computers. If it expands and programs more indies then there’s hope and it could back up the high cost of theatrical distribution or in itself might pay for indies. If Epix does not move into the indie space, someone else will.

But right now, at this moment in time, there is not enough daily good news. Distribution offers no money upfront.

THE AUDIENCE
We know the audience is there. Look at I Am Love which came out of nowhere but has gotten real attention. It is just so good. Magnolia has grossed $4,195,031 in two months and it’s still playing.
There is a hunger and recommendations by audiences are helpful…Facebook is creating a new word of mouth and films are allowed to stay in the theaters (the art houses) a bit longer now, except in L.A. and N.Y. where 8 – 10 new indies are released a week.

The films must have reasonable marketing. SPC and Magnolia have reasonable budgets.

Festivals have become the theatrical exposure in many cases with big audiences. But the festivals do not bring in money for the filmmakers. The filmmakers get exposure something they need, the players in the film, from director to cast, may get more work and representation.

SUMMATION

There is not ignoring that U.S. is not in good shape generally now because it is hard to get theatrical exposure which is needed to build up the ancillary rights. However, the upnote is that the potential of Netflix, Epix, Mubi and others may become strong backup. And the odd success story still comes up, like the $15,000 film Breaking Upwards which was picked up by IFC but whose filmmaker, Daryl Wein landed at Fox Searchlight to direct MotherF**kers and whose film Lola Versus might also land at Fox Searchlight with Anne Hathaway starring. Such success, as always, is rare, BUT his calling card was made with his low budget film.

NEXT UP

Whatever it is, it will deal with community building for both marketing and distribution. A full circle is made with the early days of exhibition’s community building and today’s online communities for film lovers.

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