Independent Film Week
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
FIT – Haft Auditorium – New York, NY
Last Tuesday at the Independent Filmmaker Conference, Variety’s Anne Thompson moderated a discussion with indie film distribution stalwart Bob Berney, who lead Warner Bros.’ specialty division Picturehouse, which was recently relinquished into the larger fabric of the company. A few years back, Berney brought to mainstream attention such indie film hits as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ. Berney talked with Thompson about his work in distribution and the current and state of the industry and where it seems to be heading. Below are some selected moments from that discussion.
Thompson: Why are the studios losing faith in the independent specialty division sectors? Why were Picturehouse and Warner Independent both put out to pasture?
Berney: We’re really caught up in a lot of things. I think that for Warners and Time Warner having duplicate distribution systems. Obviously Warners and New Line became very similar doing the same tent-pole releases. When they closed New Line, I think they forgot about us. I thought there could have been a merger with Warner Independent and Picturehouse. They felt they only were going to make tent-pole movies like The Dark Knight. They didn’t want to have the over head. There wasn’t enough profit for their huge overhead and corporation to do independent films. If they had one, they would do it through the Warner system. At the same time in the marketplace, you saw Paramount Vantage change. It’s not quite as bad as with Warner Independent and Picturehouse, but it radically downsized. We’ll see what kind of films it will do now.
Thompson: What is it that you were able to do to build audiences for foreign language films?
Berney: Over the years for foreign language films, distribution became touch because ancillary markets behind the theatrical just didn’t perform. You go from being a niche studio where you announced you’re going to buy a foreign language films. Foreign language is just the code word for zero. I tried to pick films over the years that go beyond the language. Pan’s Labyrinth…Guillermo told the story so beautifully.
Thompson: With Mel Gibson, that was an unusual situation where you took his movie against all odds onto 5,000 screens.
Berney: It was amazing operationally as distributors to do that movie. It really changed the business because we had 23 people at the time at New Market. We opened on the level of 5,000 runs and we grossed $360 million. We couldn’t believe we could actually get the prints to theaters. They (the studios) had 500-600 people doing the same thing. It was rough dealing with all the fire with Mel, but mainly we were just focused on the exhibitors. You have to go as wide as you can because it’s not a review film. At that time, he was on his best behavior. I wasn’t caught in any of the controversy of him. At the time, as an independent, we really went big. As an independent distributor, theater chains…you’re not going to get as good a deal as you do if you’re with a studio. They really tried to screw us on that.
Thompson: What has happened with the exhibition community and the health of independent film? Why is it so bad?
Berney: I think it’s a lot of things. There’s been a lot of discussion…that panel that Mark Gill did…his theory was that all films are bad. The part that’s true is there were all of these hedge fund investors that would invest in…and part of this is my fault…in the P&A. They’d get it out there and it didn’t work. Part of it is the pressure especially in the studio divisions to do bigger films and wider releases. A lot of the studios go…it has to be Juno. It has to be that kind of level of hit. That’s a lot of pressure. DVD is falling, although there are a ton of exceptions. VOD has been coming along really strong.
Thompson: Are you going to play around with the whole digital arena?
Berney: I think one of the biggest changes recently is the announcement…I don’t know if it’s going to happen…there was an announcement about six months ago that MGM, Lionsgate and Paramount are going to start a new digital VOD service. It’s very hard as an independent to get a pay deal with HBO, Showtime or Starz, because they’re doing more original programming. This could be an interesting change that helps independent distributors maybe.