Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, the co-presidents of Sony Pictures Classics, had a secret weapon in their stealth-marketing campaign for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was a 13-year-old named John Otrakji, whom they paid $1,000 to create a Website for the film. “He’s the kid of a friend of our publicist,” explains Bernard. “The site is getting 2,000 hits a day! And now he’s attacking chat rooms all over the country, driving more traffic to it.”
The low-rent site fits in nicely with their overall marketing strategy for Crouching Tiger, the film Barker calls “our big one,” an art-house Jurassic Park that can pull in all demographics: teenagers, women, Asians, hip-hoppers, even testosterone-crazed action freaks.
During the holiday movie season, when only megastars like Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, and Jim Carrey seem capable of motivating Americans to buy tickets, Crouching Tiger, without stars and with subtitles, has smashed house records from New York to Los Angeles on its way, the two men hope, to becoming the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time, surpassing Life Is Beautiful’s $57 million U.S. gross. As of last week, they are even a bit ahead of schedule. Crouching Tiger – which has collected ecstatic reviews, a Golden Globe nomination, and serious Oscar intimations – has sold $32 million in tickets since it opened last month, and it’s still only in limited release. (The film will be in 1,500 theaters by mid-February.)
Crouching Tiger’s breakout feels like a just reward for this pair – they are practically the only surviving members of the pre-Miramax indie world. Barker and Bernard came of age, in business terms, back in the eighties, when independent films were cheap but challenging and weren’t expected to sell out in the Paramus Park mall. As the original founders of Orion Classics almost two decades ago, they released pictures by everyone from Kurosawa to Malle, and since 1992, with Sony Classics, they’ve run the gamut from Merchant-Ivory to Neil LaBute. They do it the old-fashioned way, with a conservative strategy that’s virtually extinct in an era of Gulfstreams and million-dollar Super Bowl TV buys. Bernard, 48, and Barker, 46, both based in New York, still chart out their campaigns city by city, literally theater by theater. They haven’t yet purchased a network-TV ad for one of their films (including Crouching Tiger), yet they have managed to garner 55 Oscar nominations and twelve wins.
They hate test-screening films as a way of second-guessing directors. Bernard calls Joe Farrell, the head of the National Research Group, which conducts test screenings for most of the studios, “criminal, criminal! They’re stealing money from people.”
The pair are also notoriously tight-fisted. While average studio marketing costs have zoomed to about $25 million, Sony Classics has spent only $7 million on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – and that’s their biggest marketing outlay ever. The strapping, mustachioed Bernard is famous for riding to Cannes premieres on a bicycle, wearing his tux. Barker is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of movies. And he’s still a little starstruck: When we met for coffee in L.A., he went to find a waiter and accidentally handed the check to Rob Lowe. “Oh my God, I’ve had a Hollywood moment,” he said when he came back to the table. “He was very nice about it. He said he’d get the waiter.”
These are tough times in the indie business. In the past five years, the number of independent films produced has grown 600 percent, but the audience hasn’t grown apace. What used to gross $2 million is now lucky to pull in $700,000. Foreign films, which still constitute a third of Sony Classics’ business, have all but disappeared from the slate of most other small distributors.
One solution to the brutal competition is to grow out of the art-house circuit. The most successful indie company of the nineties, Miramax, now functions on the same level as a major studio, producing high-budget features with major stars.
Barker and Bernard, despite being under a major studio’s umbrella, don’t consider themselves in the same business as Miramax (which has had a particularly lackluster winter, with pricey duds like the Matt Damon vehicle All the Pretty Horses). “Miramax is always trying to identify itself as an independent,” says Barker. “But Pulp Fiction was a Tri-Star picture in turnaround. Shakespeare in Love was a Universal Picture. We’re not in that game. We do what the bigger studios can’t do effectively because they have their eyes on the bigger pictures.”
Nor do they bet on one hit to pay for a string of flops, as Fox Searchlight’s The Full Monty did. Instead, Barker and Bernard reliably deliver singles and doubles, meticulously squeezing small profits out of each picture. They were ecstatic when The Tao of Steve, which cost $1 million, earned $4 million, and when Welcome to the Dollhouse, which cost $500,000, earned $6 million. In their biggest year, 1997, their entire slate grossed $60 million, less than the average cost of a studio film today. Until Crouching Tiger, Howards End was their all-time box-office champ, and it made only $26 million.
The most unusual thing about Barker and Bernard – particularly in the fiercely petty indie world – is that no one seems to hate them. This may have something to do with the fact that they are surprisingly generous when it comes to profits, and they don’t use the usual fuzzy math endemic among studio accountants. At the end of the day, Barker and Bernard actually send profit checks to filmmakers like David Mamet and the Merchant-Ivory team, even on their most modest hits. It’s almost unprecedented.
“We don’t pay as much, but we promise a piece of the action, and they get it,” says Barker. Ismail Merchant, who has made several films with them, says, “For filmmakers, it’s a blessing to have people like that.”
Despite the spectacular success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Barker and Bernard haven’t broken any of their standard operating procedures during its release. With obvious glee, they detail their resolutely low-budget strategy for getting the word out: slipping advance videos onto the Yankees and Mets planes during the playoffs, sponsoring karate tournaments, screening the film for prominent hip-hop artists like the Wu-Tang Clan. (“Vibe magazine talked to someone at the screening,” Bernard says, “and decided to give us four pages!”)
Barker and Bernard are also admired for another attribute rare in the movie business: personal loyalty. The two men ran Orion Classics and Sony Classics with partner Marcie Bloom until one day four years ago, when Bloom suffered a brain aneurysm on the way to lunch. “She began pointing at her head and couldn’t speak,” recalls Bernard. The three were just about to accept an offer from their former boss, Jonathan Dolgen, to start Paramount Classics, but Bloom, who was now in a coma, could have lost her health insurance.
Barker and Bernard stayed with Sony and it’s new boss, John Calley. Bloom, who today is mostly recovered, works several days a week. “She’s as involved as she wants to be,” Barker says.
Of course, some in the industry wonder if love and attention can make up – at least commercially – for true Hollywood marketing muscle. “The knock on Sony is, when they have a potential crossover hit, they can’t do it,” says one high-level competitor. “They leave money on the table. That’s the price for not risking much.” The obvious examples are Howards End and Run, Lola, Run, which grossed $10 million. The question lingers: Could another distributor have done better?
But the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should quiet those naysayers. Over Christmas, Barker and director Ang Lee drove around New York, marveling at the long lines for their movie. “People always said we couldn’t do a release this big. But we never had a movie that we felt deserved a release this big,” says Bernard.
Thanks to Crouching Tiger, he admits, they might “take more chances with pictures that have more of a commercial shot.” But don’t expect one crossover success to addle their priorities. These are still guys whose favorite memory is of drinking Jack Daniel’s with Kurosawa. “You don’t feel it’s only about money for them,” says Pedro Almodóvar, and Bernard agrees. “We don’t want to be zillionaires,” he insists. “You could get really rich if you start your own company and emulate what Bob Shaye of New Line or Harvey did. But that’s not what we want to do. We just want to be in the business of distributing quality movies.”