Sony Pictures Classics exec discusses life in the indies
Michael Barker doesn’t eat popcorn when he goes to the movies.
A lot of people don’t.
In Barker’s case, though, his decision to avoid this time-honored cinema snack is probably costing all those Orville Redenbacher and Jiffy Pop folks an estimable fortune.
Y’see, Barker, who’s the co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, has seen thousands of movies in his life. He can’t say with any certainty how many because it didn’t occur to him, back at the start of his “let’s go to the movies” addiction, to keep track.
“I have no idea,” Barker says during a lunchtime phone call Sunday. “I mean, I easily watch five a week for work, and more to keep up with what the competition’s doing. I read at least five scripts a week. And I watch another 10 or 15 movies at home because I like it.
“For example, this morning, just as a personal thing, I’ve already watched three silent Naruse movies. Not many people have heard of him because his films weren’t widely available. But … Kurosawa? Mizoguchi? This guy’s as good as all of them.”
See how he did that?
Barker, 68, naturally segued from answering a question into an observation about Japanese cinema. The tone of his voice isn’t remotely like a snooty lecture but, rather, one of wistful admiration.
This demonstrates how Barker loves to talk about cinema as much as he enjoys watching it — and in that capacity, he pretty much has the perfect job.
An ideal occupation
At Sony Classics, Barker and his partner, Tom Bernard — they founded the company in 1992 with Marcie Bloom — run an autonomous division of Sony Pictures Entertainment that acquires, distributes and produces independent movies across the country and around the world.
On Wednesday, Barker will talk about his experiences and the art of cinema, answer questions and share anecdotes in a “Behind the Curtain” presentation by the La Grua Center in Stonington. Full disclosure: I’ll be moderating the event and Barker and I have been friends since high school.
Over their 30 years at Sony, Barker and Bernard have worked with such directors as Pedro Almodóvar, Wim Wenders, Ingmar Bergman, Spike Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Ang Lee, Anne Fontaine, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Mario Van Peebles, John Boorman, Francis Ford Coppola, Allison Anders, David Mamet, Woody Allen, François Truffaut, Jonathan Demme, Ismael Merchant and James Ivory, Charlie Kaufman, Steve Buscemi, Ed Harris, Neil LaBute and … you get the idea.
Among their most famous films are “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Mi Vida Loca,” “Run Lola Run,” “Pollock,” “Frozen River,” “Whiplash,” “Capote,” “Foxcatcher,” “Broken Embraces,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” “13 Conversations About One Thing,” “Lone Star,” “Welcome to the Doll House” and … you get even more of an idea.
To date, films released by Barker and Bernard have received 183 Academy Award nominations, including nine best picture nominations, and won 41 Oscars.
Last week, it was announced that the Zurich Film Festival will present their coveted “Game Changer” award to Barker and Bernard for “their services to film culture.” The pair will accept the award in September during the 18th edition of the festival.
At the forefront
Given that Sony wasn’t Barker and Barnard’s initial endeavor in the independent film business — they worked at United Artists for three years and had a nine-year run with their own Orion Classics — it’s fair to wonder if Barker and Bernard in their own fashion invented the independent film company.
“We did not,” Barker says, “but Tom, Marcie and I were at the forefront. I think what maybe we’ve done is help the longevity of what we do. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary. No one else can say that.”
Barker could certainly could have tried his luck as an actor. During his senior year at a Dallas high school, his one-man excerpt from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” earned a fourth-place finish in the dramatic acting competition at the University Interscholastic League’s national speech tournament. He was also selected as a UT undergrad to participate in the highly regarded Shakespeare at Winedale program.
But the study of and appreciation of film was of greater interest.
“Acting was just an outlet when there weren’t many (for me) in Texas, which is why I did Winedale and the speech tournaments,” Barker says.
“I just love movies; I didn’t want to act in them.” Barker says. “I love ‘Die Hard’ just as much as Truffaut. I’ll watch just about anything.” He pauses. “Well, I can’t deal with horror. Hitchcock is fine, but, in college, a guy I knew named Ed Neal worked in the library. He and (another acquaintance) were in a locally made film and I went to see it because, well, I knew them. It turned out to be ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’” He laughs. “I was completely traumatized. For life!”
See? He did it again.
From his current vantage point, Barker is quick to point out that what Sony Pictures Classics does isn’t the result of some visionary or grand aesthetic design to elevate art films but rather an evolutionary necessity brought about by would-be blockbusters opening in grand fashion.
“‘Jaws’ was the first movie to open in every theater. It played on thousands of screens,” Barker says, “followed by ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and then ‘Star Wars’ and then a slew of efforts in that vein. Before that, each studio handled ALL their films — mainstream movies as well as the art, independent and foreign films and the low-budget features.”
But in the wake of massive success of these films, movie studios changed their structures and strategies.
Barker explains, “As mainstream movies got more expensive, they had to get their money back more quickly. To compete, they had to open movies on thousands of screens and eventually, they grew less enamored of art films in part because the profit margin was lower. And that’s when studios started having separate departments specializing in niche or art films.”
Those developments dovetailed nicely with Barker’s chronology.
Through his experiences booking films for the University of Texas Student Union, Barker got to know some of the people who worked renting movies to universities. When he moved to New York City after graduation, he used those connections to get a job at Films, Inc. renting movies to prisons and libraries.
Bernard was hired as a consultant at the same company after selling events on the college lecture circuit. Though their offices were separate, they drew each other’s names at the company Secret Santa party.
“I knew he played hockey,” Barker says of Bernard, “so I got him some hockey stuff. And he bought me a Hunter S. Thompson book and a poster for ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.’ We became friends pretty quickly.”
The two landed at United Artists Classics as it segued from re-releasing library titles to being a first-run art film distributor. After a few years, they formed Orion Classics and helped streamline and chart the nature of independent film development, acquisition and production. After nine years, when the parent company ran into financial trouble. Barker, Bernard and Bloom accepted an invitation to launch Sony Classics Films.
Three decades on, a big part of their success, in addition to Barker and Bernard’s kestrel-eyed appreciation of product and talent, is their business plan and discipline. In addition to finding and marketing films — which Barker says is a skill based on developing relationships with directors and adhering to a hands-off policy in terms of the artists’ vision — they also regularly contribute as co-producers on many of their films.
They’re remarkably and presciently aware of trends in the industry — as per the collapse of the DVD market and the gradual evolution of streaming and the possibilities of companies like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and so on.
“The movies we work on deal with entirely different financial equations,” Barker says. “The marketing has to be cost effective. We use guerilla efforts and aim at a niche audience. We rely on word of mouth and on critics, and with our films, the big picture takes place over years rather than trying to win on opening weekend. For us, ‘Run Lola Run’ is still doing big business 25 years later. ‘Crouching Tiger’ is another example.”
To bid or not to bid
In terms of how Barker and Bernard decide to acquire or co-produce a film, Barker says the two of them analyze such considerations as whether they like it, what audience it might attract and how large the at audience might be.
“No matter how much we like it — and sometimes we’ll disagree about that – but there’s got to be business in the film,” he says. “Then we ask, ‘What’s the skill set required to move forward?’”
If the pair decides the project is a solid business opportunity, they calculate how much of an offer they can make.
“But it’s very, very important to talk to the filmmaker to see what his or her expectations are. If someone wants the whole solar system, we let it go. But if the producer and the director like what we can do for them, we can move forward. And at that point, it’s all about trust.”
Over the years, it’s been inevitable that Barker has gotten to know dozens of actors, directors and others in the film business.
“I’m always lucky to meet a lot of these people,” Barker says. “Some become acquaintances and over time, some of those relationships become more meaningful than others. Sometimes they even become friendships. Rarely have I been disappointed. Louis Malle and Almodovar became friends. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Penelope Cruz, Cate Blanchett ...It’s been wonderful to interact with these artists professionally and sometimes personally — to get to watch firsthand as people this talented do what they do.”
IF YOU GO
Who: Sony Classics Pictures co-president and co-founder Michael Barker
What: In conversation with The Day’s Rick Koster for the La Grua Center’s “Behind the Curtain” speakers series
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington
How much: Free, $5 suggested donation
For more information: www.lagruacenter.org