Picture’s Up

Everything you need to know about Bob Berney’s taste in movies can be summed up by one simple fact: growing up, his favorite film was Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi head-trip 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Of course, like most of us, he also had a soft spot for more, let’s say, lowbrow fare. “As a kid, I remember loving all those Ray Harryhausen movies,” says Berney in a recent phone interview, referring to the producer and visual effects guru best known for cult classics like Clash of the Titans (1981), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). “But 2001 was the first one where I really recognized the director and his style. I think Kubrick probably had that effect on a lot of future film people.”

2001 is also an apt choice because it was largely under appreciated by the industry at the time of its release. And as one of the country’s leading distributors of independent films, Berney knows all about Hollywood’s tendency to overlook good movies. After all, he’s built a career out of taking chances on films that other companies wouldn’t touch. Among the movies he’s helped steer towards box-office success—and, in some cases, Oscar glory—are Memento (2000), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and Monster (2003). He was also the man behind the curtain on two of the biggest grossing independent films of all time—My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Berney’s uncanny ability to spot a winner coupled with his sheer passion for film has made him a sought-after commodity of distribution companies and independent filmmakers alike. “When you get Bob, you don’t just get a head of distribution,” says Robert Schwartz, who first worked with Berney ten years ago at Orion Pictures and later followed him to high-profile gigs at IFC Films and Newmarket Films. “You get a head of distribution, a head of marketing and a head of acquisitions all wrapped up into one person. It’s a rarity that you get someone with all three talents. He has the vision to see a film that others may view as difficult or challenging and know right off the bat how he’s going to get it out there.”

Now Berney is taking on yet another new challenge as president of the latest addition to the theatrical distribution scene, Picturehouse. Formed and co-owned with HBO and New Line Cinema, Picturehouse enters the game with an eclectic mix of nine films slated to roll out over the next year. Some titles feature the usual indie suspects like Gus Van Sant and Michael Winterbottom, while others have a decidedly more, dare we say, mainstream feel. According to Berney, that variety is part of the goal behind Picturehouse. “We want to make a statement that we’re going to do all sorts of films, not just the ones you’d describe as art-house movies, but any movie that makes sense,” he says. “Obviously we won’t do big-budget action pictures, but we’ll be open to a diversity of genres, scopes, budgets and releases. There are no restrictions at Picturehouse.”

Bold words, especially considering that Picturehouse isn’t as, say, independent, as IFC or Newmarket (neither of which are entirely independent themselves, but that’s another story). Instead, it fits alongside New Line and HBO under the giant umbrella known as Time Warner, which means that Berney now has corporate suits to answer to—some of whom may have restrictions of their own. But Berney is quick to say that he’s been given a great deal of autonomy in setting up his new venture. “Besides,” he adds, “if you think about it, New Line started out as an independent company that acquired films. And HBO Films is known for creative risk-taking. So the goal is to make sure that the spirit within those companies carries over into Picturehouse.”

As far as Berney’s associates are concerned, if anyone can navigate the fine line between art and commerce within a corporate structure, it’s him. “Bob has always taken chances and he’ll continue to take chances,” says producer’s representative Jeff Dowd, who has known Berney professionally and personally for more than twenty years. “I don’t think he’s going to get more conservative with his new resources. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that one of the reasons he took this job is that he wanted the opportunity to take more chances.”

In Dowd’s opinion, the secret to Berney’s success as a distributor lies in his background in theatrical exhibition. After graduating with a degree in radio, television, and film from the University of Texas at Austin in 1976, Berney purchased Dallas’s Inwood Theater, which he transformed into an art house that screened independent and foreign films. (The cinema still operates today as part of the Landmark Theaters chain.) Dowd remembers meeting Berney for the first time at the Dallas Film Festival when he was making the rounds with Blood Simple (the Coen brothers’ 1984, indie-tour-de-force). “At that time, there were a lot of pictures that studios didn’t think were going to work, but Bob knew they were working because he saw them with local audiences. He did a lot of listening and learning, and, as a result, he understands how specialized films might work at a local theater. In his mind, he’s thinking: ‘I’ve seen it work here and I’m sure it will work other places.’”

Berney eventually left exhibition behind for a full-time career in marketing and distribution, beginning with a stint at Film Dallas, part of the now-defunct New World Pictures. From there, he moved on to Triton Pictures where he worked on such movies as Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), In the Soup (1992), and A Brief History of Time (1991). By the mid-’90s, he had moved up the ladder to vice-president of marketing and distribution at Orion Pictures and later at Banner Entertainment. He was still with Banner when he got involved in the release of Todd Solondz’s sophomore film, Happiness, in 1998. The original distributor, October Films, had dropped the movie after its owner Universal Pictures expressed concerns about its content. So Berney stepped in and created an independent distribution arm out of Good Machine, which produced Happiness, to get the film out to theaters. The movie’s subsequent critical and commercial success convinced Berney to strike out on his own as an independent marketing and distribution consultant. Two years later, he stumbled upon a low-budget thriller told in reverse called Memento and brought it to the attention of the fledgling Newmarket Films. And with that, his streak of successes began.

When asked if he has some kind of a sixth sense for spotting hits, Berney just laughs. “I wish I did. It’s too crazy and pretentious to think that way, because, really, there are always going to be ups and downs. You start over on every new project; no matter what kind of success you’ve had before, you still have to look at the next one and figure out how it’s going to work.” Still, it’s not surprising that his associates think he may have some kind of cinematic ESP. “The track record he’s had is not by accident,” says Schwartz. “It is what it is for a reason. It’s true that no one picks a winner every time, Bob included. But I do think that he has great instincts.”

For his part, Berney credits those instincts to a variety of factors, from seeing how a movie plays with an audience to his own personal response. “It can be a really visceral reaction,” he explains. “If you’re feeling something about a film that’s really different or there’s a performance that’s exciting or a visual style that pulls you in. It’s different on every one. I remember on Y Tu Mamá También I was struck by the road-trip feel of it. And with Whale Rider (2002) it was the performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes and the emotional payoff that came at the end.” But he also admits that oftentimes success just comes down to good old-fashioned luck. “Luck and timing are big factors and sometimes you can be completely off. I don’t pretend to have a formula—you’re just trying to look at what you think works and how the financial aspects of the deal might fit with the company that you’re with. Sometimes all these decisions just come aligned together at once. And sometimes it’s just magic.”

Berney’s new partners at HBO and New Line are clearly hoping that he’ll be able to tap into some of that magic as he gets Picturehouse up and running. “Bob’s reputation in the independent film world is really without match in terms of being able to find and build audiences for movies that other people don’t see how to market,” says Keri Putnam, executive vice president of HBO Films. “He was really our first thought to run Picturehouse, and we were very lucky to get him.” The new venture was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in May to coincide with the festival premiere of Gus Van Sant’s new film Last Days, which was released under the Picturehouse banner in July.

Upcoming releases include Michael Winterbottom’s comic romp A Cock and Bull Story and The Notorious Bettie Page, directed by Mary Harron and starring Gretchen Mol as the famed 50s pinup queen. Picturehouse will also be exploring the foreign film market with Ushpizin, an Israeli comedy/drama about a married pair of ultra-Orthodox Jews who inadvertently get involved with two criminals. “When I tell people that one of our first releases is an Israeli film about Orthodox Jews, they go ‘Wow, that’s different,’ and kind of scratch their heads,” Berney says, chuckling. “It’s a small movie, but I feel that, as with Whale Rider, a lot of universal truth comes out of it. I think it’s going to surprise people.”

Perhaps the film that Berney is most excited about, however, is The Thing About My Folks, a father-son story written by the actor Paul Reiser and starring Reiser and Peter Falk that Picturehouse is releasing this month. The movie was a labor of love for the former “Mad About You” star, who opted to produce the film independently in order to retain creative control. When shooting wrapped last fall, he shopped it around to various distributors but was disappointed by their reaction. “I’d meet people who would go, ‘We love the movie, but we don’t know how to sell it,” Reiser says. “I’d say ‘What do you mean?’ and they’d go ‘Oh it’s too hard.’ And I’d go, ‘Of course it’s hard!’ Everything is hard—making a movie is hard, being creative is hard, getting up in the morning is hard!” Eventually, Reiser hooked up with Jeff Dowd, who immediately suggested bringing the movie to Berney’s attention. In February, they invited him to a special screening of Folks close by his home in Westchester. “We chatted after the screening, and he said ‘Let’s talk tomorrow,’” says Reiser. “So the next day we met in his office, and he instantly started talking about how we should open the movie. At no point did he actually say, ‘I’d like to do this.’ I was like, ‘Go back a minute Bob…so the answer is yes?’”

That meeting was Reiser’s first exposure to another important component of Berney’s MO: a close working relationship with the filmmakers and talent. “I like to try and make the experience personal rather than just layers of bureaucracy,” explains Berney. “I get a lot of input from the filmmakers and work with them on the marketing and release pattern.” In the case of Folks, Berney and Reiser have several marketing schemes in the works, including web-based advertising and the production of special trailers for the film with original content. Reiser and Falk have also committed to visiting every market where Folks is opening to publicize the movie. “We talk to Bob all the time,” says Reiser. “We call him after screenings and we call with every idea. And he’s always right on it—he doesn’t dodge phone calls or e-mails. It’s very refreshing.” That personal attention is one of the reasons Dowd pushed Reiser to meet with Berney in the first place. “Let’s just say that Charlize Theron wasn’t kidding when she thanked Bob in her acceptance speech at the Oscars,” Dowd says. “There was a very strong relationship there—he understood her performance and how people would respond to it.”

With its gentle sense of humor and strong familial themes, Folks has the potential to be another My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a fact that everyone at Picturehouse is keenly aware of. “We’re all looking forward to big things on that film,” admits Schwartz, who Berney brought over from Newmarket to serve as the company’s COO. Another movie generating a lot of buzz within Picturehouse is the Diane Arbus biopic Fur, directed by Secretary’s Steven Shainberg and starring Nicole Kidman as the renowned shutterbug. The project excites Berney not only because of the talent involved, but also because it’s the first film that he directly had a hand in shepherding into production. “We didn’t plan on having a production going out of the gate—it just timed out very well,” he says matter-of-factly. Shooting began in May in New York and the film will be released under the Picturehouse banner sometime next year.

While Fur marked Berney’s first foray into production, don’t expect to see the words “A Picturehouse Production” in front of every one of the company’s releases. For now, his focus will remain primarily on distribution. As they go about building next year’s slate, one thing he and his staff are still working out is how the films will be divided up amongst Picturehouse, New Line and HBO. “There are a few different ways the situation can work,” explains Putnam. “Bob can acquire things for Picturehouse, or Picturehouse can release films that HBO or New Line fully financed, or films that we jointly financed. He’ll probably also come up with other creative ways to find movies—including projects that he’ll bring to the table—but that’s the arrangement right now.”

The other challenge facing Picturehouse is how to make a name for itself in the crowded landscape of specialized distribution. In fact, when the deal was first announced, it generated speculation about the future of Time Warner’s other indie division, Warner Independent Pictures. Berney stresses that Warner Independent won’t be affected by Picturehouse, although he does add that New Line’s own specialty arm, Fine Line, will be retired. “I think Picturehouse will become one of the bigger distributors, in the area of Fox Searchlight or the former Miramax,” he says. “But I think we’re going to have a diversity that other companies typically don’t have. We won’t focus on certain kinds of films or only productions or acquisitions.”

“Picturehouse is a way to make a new statement,” Berney continues. “New Line and HBO are both inherently risk-taking, filmmaker-oriented companies, and this is a way for us to benefit from that and also have our own marketing and distribution expertise brought to bear. It gives us a lot of strength and depth to make movies. Ultimately, I hope that Picturehouse won’t just fit into an existing slot on the independent film scene. Hopefully we’ll create a new slot.

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