By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 12, 2010 at 10:33AM
Bob and Jeanne Berney are back in Cannes, staying in the same Croisette apartment overlooking the Palais as they did last year. Only this time, they are the subject of much conjecture about why they abruptly pulled out of their year-old distribution company Apparition, funded by River Road producer Bill Pohlad. Contrary to some reports, Berney is neither back in bed with Newmarket (where he enjoyed his greatest freedom and success, now aligned with Lionsgate) nor shacked up with Harvey Weinstein, although the mogul has called him and they will probably meet during the fest.
Finally, Berney's seeing films and looking for work. But if the respected distributor of such films as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Memento, Whale Rider, Pan's Labyrinth and Y Tu Mama Tambien is finding such rough going, what does it bode for the future of the indie sector? Berney has run through a laundry list of indie labels over his career, from IFC and Newmarket to Picturehouse and Apparition. But he still believes in the theatrical market.
[Photo by Eugene Hernandez]
"It's clear things need to change," he says, "especially with exhibitors, who are willing to be more experimental and creative. There's plenty of room for films with the bigger chains, who need crossover product. I still think there's a big audience. With the right backing behind you, it can still work, even though it's tough out there." It helps that there's more liquidity in the marketplace, and both lower budgets and sale prices for movies.
Berney can't comment during the still-delicate extrication from his deal with Pohlad (pictured with Berney in happier days in Cannes last year) which featured an exit clause after a year for both parties. Their partnership came to a head on the eve of Cannes as Berney faced the realities of what he could and could not do as a buyer and as a distributor with a limited product flow. At the start, Apparition planned to release eight films a year. What was on the docket? The Tree of Life, heading for the fall festival circuit with serious expectations, and Sundance's well-reviewed Stewart-starrer Welcome to the Rileys, a well-acted dark drama which would need TLC.
Initially, Berney and Pohlad had hoped to raise additional funding for the company. Instead, Pohlad controlled the purse strings. Thus Apparition either released his films, which included The Runaways ($3.5 million domestic gross) and the upcoming The Tree of Life, or made service deals through Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group, including the long-running The Young Victoria ($13 million), Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day ($10 million), Sundance blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite ($242,578) and the upcoming Welcome to the Rileys.
Thus Berney was only able to acquire two films on his own, Jane Campion's Cannes 2009 entry Bright Star ($4.5 million) and recent opener The Square ($217,656 to date), the kind of buy you make when you're investing in a young filmmaker for the long haul. As a fledging distrib, Apparition scored four Oscar noms, for Bright Star and The Young Victoria.
While things were not going swimmingly at Apparition, which eked out modest returns of $30 million on its first slate, things weren't so bad that anyone expected Berney to move on. Contrary to one report, not a factor was River Road and Participant's Fair Game, which is playing in competition at Cannes, supplied by foreign sales company Summit's Patrick Wachsberger as a substitution for Terrence Malick's incomplete The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. Summit always had first crack at North American rights to the Doug Liman thriller, which is budgeted in the $30-million range. Not only do Pohlad and Summit have a long relationship, but Participant is a majority investor in Summit.
The movie that most tested the Pohlad/Berney partnership was music biopic The Runaways, which carried high expectations due to Twilight stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. In that case, after a splashy media launch at Sundance, Pohlad altered Berney's distribution plans, drastically pulling the film back from a planned wide release to a more conservative platform. In fact, the movie played best inside the art-house niche with fans of the original 70s group, topping out at $3.5 million. But in today's marketplace, many movies don't get that far. (David Poland assesses Apparition's run.) UPDATE: At Tribeca, Berney explored buying Alex Gibney's well-reviewed expose on Elliot Spitzer, which Pohlad saw at a buyer's screening in LA. The day before Berney split from Apparition, Gibney got word that Apparition couldn't buy the film. The straw that broke the camel's back? Berney has no comment.
As Pohlad "explores his options," Berney will likely reform his usual core team when he sets up shop elsewhere. Pohlad "is a bold producer and a good guy," says Berney, who leaves several trusted long-time aides behind, including Sara Rose and Bill Thompson, and a leaderless marketing department, which had been run by Jeanne. After Berney submitted his resignation, Pohlad wrote a memo to Apparition employees, which was leaked within minutes to Deadline's Michael Fleming--before the Apparition staff had read it. Pohlad instantly pulled five staffers back from traveling to Cannes--some of whom were already airborne.
The Berneys continued to the Cote d'Azur.