Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker believes “there’s more at stake than ever before” when it comes to releasing independent and art house movies. In a wide-ranging keynote session at Film London’s Production Finance Market in East London, Barker appraised the current distribution landscape before sitting down with Deadline to discuss the prestige label’s upcoming slate.
“I’m basically very optimistic because I know what needs to be done,” the executive told an industry audience about the current landscape. “I won’t allow pessimism in, but it’s tough. It’s always been difficult. It is hard every five years. But there’s more at stake than ever before. It has to do with film culture and the stability of the world. The challenge we all have is that there’s so much noise in the universe. There are so many options and ways to see films. It’s chaos out there, so the challenge is to cut through. That wasn’t the case before.”
“There is too much content being generated,” he continued. “I used to blanch when 13 movies opened in New York City on a Friday. Six weeks ago I saw 42 open in a week. It’s a real problem. Not all those films should be in the cinemas.”
There may also be a deficit today in the quality of the movies being made in the U.S., Barker suggested, “The financials of the studio model means obeisance to superhero movies. The greatest studio films of the 1970s aren’t being made anymore, and I don’t think the independent sector is making up for that shortfall. It will always be a struggle. The plus sign is that people are more sophisticated about movies than ever before because of access.”
Despite the superhero conveyor belt, the diversity of studio slates remains financially important, he contended. “People don’t talk about it anymore, but I still think it’s valid: the value of a diverse library. The artistic value of a filmmaker’s work is an intangible. It promises revenue down the line. A lot of people don’t agree with that today. It’s about making money now and quickly. The difference between independent films and studio films is that the independents can have really long tails and value. Movies like Orlando have almost as much value today as when they came out.”
SPC has an enviable catalog. One movie that won’t be adding to its value is breakout Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which came up when Barker was asked about movies he wished he hadn’t passed on.
“I regret passing on that,” he sighed wryly. “Boneheaded decision. It’s excellent.”
In response to a question about the enduring strength of the UK film industry, Barker highlighted the 1980s as a particularly fertile time for UK directors but also pointed to current movies and producers as reasons for optimism. He described SPC’s Toronto acquisition Maiden as “incredible: it’s the next Searching for Sugarman.” The against-all-odds docu follows sailor Tracy Edwards, who skippered the first all-female international crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. “You can always find these things in the UK,” he added.
He also noted UK producers such as Faye Ward, Gaby Tana and Jeremy Thomas as examples of “great producers who care about nothing more than that movie they’re working on…the producers who succeed have that, their talent is their desire.”
When I sat down with Barker after the session, we discussed the SPC slate in more detail. Does he see a film among his current batch which could come close to emulating the box office, critical and awards success of Call Me By Your Name from last year?
“Well, The Wife is doing very well,” Barker said. “We’re over $7 million in the U.S. The lead actors [Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce] deserve to be in the awards conversation. We have some very good films coming up. The Happy Prince opened last weekend. Documentary Maria By Callas will be successful, I think. In December we have Stan and Ollie, which is a terrific film and will likely garner attention for its lead actors. Capernaum is also coming up.”
The latter film, Nadine Labaki’s politically charged Lebanese drama about a child who launches a lawsuit against his parents, is among the favorites for the Foreign Language Oscar, a category SPC has won eight out of the past 12 years. Labaki recently shaved around 13 minutes off the Cannes version of the film, which features mostly non-professional actors. “I’ve never seen child actors like that in my life,” Barker said during his keynote. “It’s like watching Bicycle Thieves for the first time.”
“The young actor [Zain al-Rafeea] in it is worthy of Best Actor consideration,” Barker enthused to me. “Nadine Labaki is worthy of Best Director consideration too. They are remarkable. It’s an excellent Foreign Language selection this year. We also have Never Look Away and Sunset, which are also strong contenders.” He also noted Chloé Zhao’s drama The Rider and animation film Ruben Brandt, Collector as among those deserving of the awards spotlight.
This is likely to be the first time SPC will be going up against a serious charge from Netflix in the awards race. How does he view the platform’s push into the season? “I think Netflix is very smart. They’re a part of the business now. If these awards films really are going to get nominations for them, I hope the movies have the theatrical profile they deserve.”