Sony Pictures Classics Presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard gave sound advice to American theater chains, while explaining the reasons behind their continued success, during a discussion at the Zurich Film Festival on Saturday about their colorful and storied collaboration spanning more than four decades.
Zurich honors the duo for their services to film culture with the Game Changer Award on Sunday.
Speaking to Roeg Sutherland, co-CEO of CAA Media Finance, Barker and Bernard took a captivating and humorous trip down memory lane at the Zurich Summit industry event, from working together at United Artists Classics and then Orion. Classics, before founding Sony Pictures Classics in 1992, until partnering with Akira Kurosawa and re-acquiring “Howards End” from Ismail Merchant, despite Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to significantly outbid them.
However, when discussing the current state of the industry, Bernard expressed annoyance that most exhibitors failed to fully understand the vast potential of digital technology in light of the serious challenges posed by the pandemic.
“These are people who haven’t understood the internet; they have not understood how business works.”
He noted that a Canadian theater chain began collecting customer names to send them messages about new releases to their liking.
“That’s what Netflix did. You’ll get three in the mail, we’ll send you three more, and you’ll like this one. And they kept the data. Theaters do not use their data. They don’t reach their customers. They don’t bring movies back into the conversation. It’s starting to happen slowly, but when it does, it will change and people will start to go. ”
Distributors and exhibitors must find creative ways to lure audiences back, he added, such as Sony Pictures Classics’ partnership with Angelika Film Center to offer a two-for-one entry deal to British comedy “The Duke.” which turned out to be a successful strategy. for the movie.
“We’ve made it a talk in the media,” Bernard added. “It’s just to get the cinemas up to speed with the rest of the industry.”
Bernard expressed his optimism about the future of the theater, saying that the company would absolutely survive the current setbacks, especially with the huge success of comic book franchises such as “Spider-Man.” “But the theaters have to change and they are changing slowly. Back in the day, all the advertising and marketing was done by the studios or the distributors, co-op advertising and all that sort of thing. That’s over.
“I don’t understand why a cinema with 500,000 names of people who have seen all their movies couldn’t organize that. I’d come up to them and say, ‘Hey, you’re in Minneapolis. I’d like anyone who’s seen a Pedro Almodóvar movie to get an email and I’ll pay you for it” – as if I were buying a TV spot. They haven’t even figured out how to make money with that yet.”
He noted that it was up to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) to help make that happen and move the exhibitor business into the future, “which they will slowly but surely do.”
Reiterating the positive review, Barker said, “I think theatrical will always be a primary. I think there’s no doubt that theater will survive.” Even if the box office is less, the value of theatrical for people to remember those titles will remain, he added. “If you sell a movie to a streamer, they put it at the forefront of their activity for a while, but then what happens? It becomes part of the index. While the theatrical can make it meaningful to people, whether we look at the theaters or we’ll see it later, so I have no doubts: theatrical is going to survive.
“Streamers get your film, then they put it in a trash can and you never see it again,” Barker added. “Our movies will go through a five-year cycle where they will play any format and then bounce back and replay them.”
A theatrical run makes a film, he emphasized. “When you’re in the cinema, you get more serious people paying attention to your movie, you get more serious media dealing with your movie, and again, it’s an important part of the marketing process. But the new world order has a lot to do with how your income comes in. The cake is different now. So your theater will be less than it was. When we started in the company, it was 80%. Now that is a very small percentage.”
Sony Pictures Classics is in a rare position to sell movies to all major platforms, including Disney Plus, Barker noted.
Bernard added that digital media has also significantly reduced advertising costs. “It’s a lot cheaper now to release a movie with the internet. Newspaper ads were insane money. You could pay $100,000 for a full page. What you could do with $100,000 on the Internet is a thousand times more than with a full page in a newspaper.”
Barker noted the surprises that often come in the business that confirm the quality of a film. “During the pandemic, there was a time when we got a call from home entertainment and they said, ‘We just wanted to tell you that the most popular movie during the pandemic in our entire Sony Pictures and Columbia library is ‘Call Me By Your Name’. “We were, like, what? That’s what’s unpredictable about this movie business, it’s that there are those surprises that give these titles longevity. You have to trust the quality a little bit.”