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Why Berneys Left FilmDistrict; What’s Next?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 4, 2011 at 6:28PM

As New York indie distributor Bob Berney leaves FilmDistrict, which is consolidating operations in Los Angeles, he and marketing chief Jeanne Berney will be able to do what they should have done all along. Go into business for themselves. Why manage egos, seek credit and deal with others’ production choices and cozy relationships when you should be your own boss? Let the Berneys run with their own taste and judgement.
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The Rum Diary
The Rum Diary

As New York indie distributor Bob Berney leaves FilmDistrict, which is consolidating operations in Los Angeles, he and marketing chief Jeanne Berney will be able to do what they should have done all along. Go into business for themselves. Why manage egos, seek credit and deal with others’ production choices and cozy relationships when you should be your own boss? Let the Berneys run with their own taste and judgement.

With their track record and relationships—at FilmDistrict alone they delivered decent numbers for horror flick Insidious ($54 million domestic), producer Guillermo del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ($24 million) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive ($34 million)—they should be able to raise money now. “We’re really proud of the success of our initial four films and working with these filmmakers,” Berney told me. “They do stack up against any other independent company that’s ever opened.” (He’s referring to the $116 million gross out of the gate through October 30 for FilmDistrict’s first four films vs. the same period at Overture, Weinstein Co., Relativity and even Summit (before it scored big with Twilight).

The inevitable break-up was planned before the Johnny Depp vehicle The Rum Diary‘s poor $5 million opening. And the wide release, which cost $25 million for prints and ads, was a given. First, King is partnered with Depp over the long haul, and King had raised the financing for the $45 million movie with foreign distributors who dictated a wide release—-go any other way and he’d have to return minimum guarantees.

There were too many cooks in the kitchen at producer Graham King’s FilmDistrict; it wasn’t going to accommodate two alpha males: Berney and ex-Sony president Peter Schlessel, who wanted a more controlling hand over the company’s operations. He had wanted Berney to come to LA from the start but the Berneys had already made the move from LA to NY some years back and weren’t going to uproot again. The duo will continue to serve as marketing and distribution consultants on FilmDistrict’s ongoing projects through March 1, particularly the Angelina Jolie film Land of Blood and Honey, which needs careful handling. But their New York office will be shuttered as of December 31, with yet another round of Berney hires (remember Pohlad’s Apparition?)—29 staffers this time—getting pink slips.

The Berneys’ ability to score strong press for their efforts may have hurt them; it’s never a good idea to get a bigger spotlight than your boss. The other issue is simply that King has discovered the awful truth behind mounting a distribution machine—just as Bob Yari and Bill Pohlad did before him: even with modest overhead, it eats up cash. It remains to be seen how King and Schlessel will maneuver from here, by partnering with other distributors, hiring consultants or building a new in-house operation.

This article is related to: News, Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Indies


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.