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The Mogul Bob Berney, One on One for TIFF 2010

by Sydney Levine
November 18, 2010 4:30 AM
1 Comment
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Better late than never. During Toronto's film festival I interviewed Bob Berney for the Meet the Mogul program. Here is a video for those visually inclined readers. My preliminary notes on the talk are also here and cover some topics we never got to. Though it was widely speculated that he would be going to Graham King's FilmDistrict, we decided not to touch the subject until an official announcement was made. However, he knew where he was headed.

Bob Berney 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 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.

The One-on-One

Sydney: Your roots in exhibition have informed your intuition and hard knowledge of distribution and are not only very interesting but perhaps unique. How did it at the beginning of your career in distribution, and does it still now? Greek Wedding and Passion but also Whale Rider and Memento are my standout memories, but all your films are landmarks of the business from the very first.

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, you were in Dallas 1980 to 1989 and even before as a film student at UT. 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 you 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 you 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, and 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 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.).

SL: Would better theaters bring in more of an audience?

BB: They could “Put on a Show” if they catered more to film lovers and offered more. For example, 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.

Mainstream circuits are also diversifying product, creating special ambiance and are continuing to attract new younger audiences. Now 3D is bringing them in.
In Brooklyn which is alike the Greenwich Village of the past, there is no theater, though they are opening one soon in Williamsburg.

There is a need for theatrical experiences beyond the tent pole 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. Thus, 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 more, becoming 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.

But it has been tough financing films. International coproductions tapping into subsidy monies are driving production and there is more of a focus on what films are being made. There is a realistic view of marketing as well. And often the film, its budget and its cast does not even take into account the U.S. market because it is so shaky. In the past it seemed more hopeful.

There is also a new trend in features that come out of television, such as the Red Riding Trilogy, Carlos the Jackal that was in Cannes, or Michael Winterbottom’s current Toronto film, The Trip, which was a mini series. UK’s In the Loop was another TV program made into a theatrical feature. This is a source of films that are already well financed because of their television platform and their budgets and production value can surpass indies in which are having a rough time raising money.

ONLINE DISTRIBUTION

We all know it is not yet bringing in the money. The big players now are Netflix, Ryan Kavanaugh (Relativity) and Epix. These could change the rock 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 now, 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

The 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.

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 is up next, 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.


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 PRAIRE 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).

And as of November 2010, Bob Berney and Peter Schlessel are key players in Graham King and Tim Headington’s new distribution company FilmDistrict. The company’s brief is to acquire or generate films with strong casts that can play on between 1500 and 2000 screens. In the first major deal of the American Film Market, FilmDistrict prebought North American rights to Drive from Affinity. Based on the James Sallis novel and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, budgeted for less than $30 million, the film stars Ryan Gosling who plays a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver and is targeted for death after a heist goes wrong, it also stars Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks. FilmDistrict plans to release in late summer or early fall. On Sunday FD acquired Europacorp‘s Lockout. Prior to AFM, the company acquired Soul Surfer.

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 Jeanne who is head of publicty at FilmDistrict and their two sons.

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1 Comment

  • Victor Goss | November 19, 2010 6:42 AMReply

    Bob is a bright guy with an interesting story to tell. He paints a clear picture of options for indy film distribution, theatrical and otherwise, in the near future. As brutal as it feels at times, there IS a reason for us to be doing this!!!
    thanks again,
    Victor

    http://doristhemovie.com

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