The guru of art films, Michael Barker, and his Texas ties

UT grad Michael Barker helps set the bar for moviegoers

It’s probably safe to say that most Austin moviegoers don’t know about Michael Barker. But nearly every top actor and director knows the University of Texas graduate — and the best want to work with him. Along with Tom Bernard, he’s co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of some of the world’s most critically acclaimed movies, and he’s a regular on the festival circuit, looking for new acquisitions and making deals.

His taste in movies has led to seven best-picture Oscar nominations, with such releases as “Whiplash,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Capote,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Howards End,” “Amour” and “An Education.”

And he has plenty more movies coming out by the end of the year and early next year. They include the Lily Tomlin film “Grandma,” the Hank Williams biography “I Saw the Light,” the Dan Rather tale “Truth,” the Woody Allen dramedy “Irrational Man” and the Cannes Film Festival stunner “Son of Saul.”

Earlier this year, Julianne Moore won best actress in another of his movies, the Alzheimers drama “Still Alice.” And the Sony Pictures Classics lineup in 2014 included “Foxcatcher,” “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Leviathan,” “Mr. Turner” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

“We’re very auteur-driven,” says Barker, speaking to the American-Statesman on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel during the Cannes Film Festival. “We try to stick with filmmakers we adore. Sometimes they go away, and they eventually come back. And sometimes we really stick with them, like we have with Pedro Almodóvar … and Woody Allen.”

Barker says his studio tries to “grow an audience” for a film, releasing it in only a few markets and then building up buzz before expanding nationwide. “We are not about winning the weekend,” he says. “The highest-grossing film for us was ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ which did $128 million in the U.S., but we never won the weekend.” It did, however, go on to win four Oscars, and it was nominated for six more.

The Sony Pictures Classic strategy of finding gems around the world has led the Hollywood Reporter to call Barker and Bernard “kings of the art house.”

A filmic rise

Barker’s a New Yorker now, but he comes back to Austin regularly. The youngest of his two daughters, in fact, was married in Austin in late April, having lived here for a couple of years before moving back to Brooklyn.

Barker’s rise in the movie business started in Austin, when he began attending the University of Texas after graduating from Kimball High School in Dallas in 1972.

Back in the 1970s, long before VHS, DVDs and online streaming, university campuses were a hotbed for film screenings. Various groups, especially at the University of Texas, showed movies all over campus, and Barker devoured them.

Before long, the speech communications major was running the film program at the Texas Union, “where we showed like 148 movies a year in the ’70s,” he says. He dealt with various studios and people in New York, where a thriving business existed for renting movies to universities, prisons and other institutions.

And when he graduated, he knew he wanted to go to New York. “But when I came up to New York, I couldn’t find a job anywhere,” he says. So he called a friend who used to rent movies to him for UT screenings, and that’s how Barker got his first job — at Films, Incorporated. “My first job was typing invoices, but within a year or so, I became a salesperson, renting volumes of films to prisons and libraries.”

That’s also where he met his eventual longtime business partner, Bernard. He was working at the same company, and “we pulled each other’s name out of a Secret Santa hat to give gifts,” Barker says. “It was a company thing, and I didn’t know him.”

By 1981, both of them were working for United Artists. “They hired me to be the head of 16 millimeter distribution to colleges and universities,” Barker says, and “Tom went over there to run United Artists Classics … to start up a first-run theateatrical arthouse company. It became obvious that I wanted to work with him, so I did. Our first film together was Francois Truffaut’s ‘The Last Metro.’”

They worked at United Artists Classics for about two years, releasing such foreign-language titles as “Diva” (a French thriller), “Lola” (from German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and “The Night of the Shooting Stars” (from Italy’s Paolo and Vittorio Taviani). But in 1983, some of the top executives at United Artists formed a company called Orion Pictures, and Barker and Bernard moved with them, to help “invest in foreign-language films and UK films, to create a company dedicated to what we consider independent movies today.” That company became Orion Classics, and “it was set up as a separate business from the mainstream film business,” Barker says. “You would go after these independent movies. They would have platform releases, and maybe they could grow into something mainstream.”

The two were at Orion Classics from 1983 to 1992, releasing such classics as “Ran,” “My Beautiful Launderette,” “Jean de Florette,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Wings of Desire,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and a new feature film from a little-known Austin director, Richard Linklater’s “Slacker.”

When the parent company, Orion Pictures, starting having financial difficulties in 1991 and 1992, Peter Guber of Sony Pictures Entertainment told them that he would “set us up as an autonomous division, Sony Pictures Classics, understanding that the financials for releasing our films was different from those of big films.”

“And what we’ve learned over 24 years is that you can grow a film into the culture,” Barker says. “We pride ourselves in having really targeted campaigns for each film and in having an eclectic slate.” He says about a third of the company’s releases are “productions that we get involved in before the pictures are made, with the rest being acquired at various stages of completion, or when totally completed and at a film festival.”

Barker says he and Bernard “go after those films that we think have a real audience but aren’t films that big studios might finance. … So you end up taking risks, but they’re not huge.”

The Cannes experience

Cannes, of course, is the biggest annual market for new films, and it’s almost nonstop moviegoing, deal-making and parties for both Barker and Bernard. Barker estimates that he gets about four hours of sleep each night while the festival is going on for two weeks in May.

“Here’s the thing about Cannes,” he says. “It’s not just about the movies that play here. We’re reading a lot of screenplays, and we’re looking at two right now. … It’s important to know that you’ll hear about things in the next few months that started here.”

His typical day in Cannes? “It usually begins with a barrage of meetings between 9 a.m. and 11:30 on this terrace (the Carlton), mostly with producers, directors and sales agents. We sometimes have time for journalists, but rarely. Then there’s a movie from 11:30 to 1:30. Then there’s a lunch with a producer, director or sales agent.”

Then it’s back to the moviegoing. “We have someone in New York who does our schedules, and it’s all very well-planned. I have a really thick book mapping out my options each day,” he says. “If I don’t like a certain film, I can sneak out and see another one — that kind of stuff. And I mean, man, that book is a tome.”

In the evening, it’s usually a reception or dinner, followed by more movies. He especially likes taking in an evening world premiere in Cannes, where tuxes are required. “I kind of enjoy dressing up in a tux and going to see a movie,” he says.

“Last night,” he says in confidential tones, he watched the new movie from Jacques Audiard, “Dheepan,” which later won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. “We’re very close to him, and I adore him. And then I went to see the new Hou Hsiao-hsien,” he says, referring to “The Assassin.” People in Cannes often refer to movies by the director’s name, not by the movie’s name.

“Then I had a slight bite to eat, and I took in two parties. I went to the Audiard party, which was here on the beach, and then we went out of town to the party that the Wild Bunch had. (Wild Bunch is a French film distribution and sales company.) It was in some stadium, and it was very loud and very late, with a lot of strobe lights and dancing. I got back very late, and then I got up at 8 o’clock. I got very little sleep. … It’s a bit of an endurance test.”

He then adds: “That’s what I love about this place. You always get the temper of the business, where people’s heads are at, whether they’re in a panic. In the old days, they would just sell you the wares. … But in the last couple of years, when I go into a meeting, the first thing they say to me is, ‘What do you think is going to happen with the business? Should we worry?’”

Part of the worries involve the collapse of what movie-business types call the “DVD sell-through.” Basically, sell-through means the number of DVDs actually sold, rather than shipped. And DVD sales have plummeted with the rise of streaming and video on demand.

That’s partly why there are no more Blockbuster video stores.

That, in turn, has led to a decline in revenue for studios, since they get more money from selling a DVD than they get from someone who streams or watches their movies on video on demand. The numbers are debatable, but in general, business analysts estimate that studios get about $10 to $14 for each DVD sold, but get only about $1 to $4 dollars for each movie rented or streamed.

And that, in turn, has led to a big adjustment in how much money studios and their representatives, like Barker, are willing to pay for distribution rights.

“We have to respond to trends in the marketplace,” Barker says. “When the bottom fell out of the DVD sell-through business, which was set to be a cash cow for us, we had to recalibrate how much money we would invest in films. … So it’s been a real transitional time for the last several years, but I feel we respond quickly to what’s going on in the marketplace, and that is kind of key to our survival.”

A fine balance

When selecting movies to distribute, Barker says he tries to balance commerce with art.

“When you see these films, you get an idea of what issues filmmakers think are important. …. Like last year, when we saw ‘Leviathan’ (the Russian movie from director Andrey Zvyagintsev and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics). It tells you exactly what’s going on in Russia in clearer terms than the front-page stories in the New York Times, and it’s dramatic, and it’s entertaining, and it’s what you want from a movie. So we see what’s on the filmmaker’s mind, what the filmmaker thinks should be on our minds. And every year, we walk away from this place with a lot of food for thought.”

Five years ago, Barker and Bernard had a similar enthusiastic response to “Of Gods and Men,” a French film about a terrorist threat to a group of monks in Algeria. “You say, great movie. But we don’t always go after a great movie. … The No. 1 thing is: Is there an audience for this in America? Can we come up with a plan to get to that audience? … With ‘Of Gods and Men,’ it was clear to us. Tom and I looked at each other and said, ‘Catholics are going to love this movie.’ So we hired a publicist to get to the priests, to have them talk about it from the pulpit, and I knew we had arrived when the picture opened in Orlando, Florida, and our office got a call on the Friday that it opened, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, saying that 90 nuns showed up for a screening.”

The movie went on to gross more than $4 million — “amazing for a foreign-language film of that type,” Barker says.

He’s currently working a plan for rolling out his latest Cannes acquisition, “Son of Saul,” from Hungarian director László Nemes. “It an amazing film, one of the most powerful movies on the subject of the Holocaust, and the idea that this was a first-time director was unfathomable.”

So how does Barker think American audiences can be sold on the film? “It’s about a man trying to bury his son properly. But there’s one impediment: He’s in Auschwitz. And telling the story that way makes it feel different from other movies on the subject. Then there’s the revelation of this actor, (Géza Röhrig) who I’ve discovered is not an actor. He’s a poet who lives in the Bronx! I met the director yesterday and said, ‘How did you find this guy?’ and he said, ‘I’ve known him for many years.’”

Barker says that it’s easy for people to dismiss the commercial prospects of an arthouse film in Cannes. “I remember when ‘Amour’ (a Sony Pictures Classics release from director Michael Haneke) showed here and it won the Palme d’Or (in 2012). A number of people speculated that in America, the older generation was not going to turn out for the movie. But they turned out big time. They weren’t afraid of the subject matter at all.” (It focuses on an octogenarian couple, one of whom has a debilitating stroke.)

“Amour,” as cineastes know, went on to win the foreign-language Oscar and was nominated for four more.

“There’s something special about the movies that prevail,” Barker says, “just like there is with ‘Son of Saul.’”

So far, “Son of Saul” doesn’t have a release date, “but it’ll be in the last quarter of the year,” Barker says. “I want to open it like we did with ‘A Separation’ and ‘Amour,’ at the very end of the year in New York and L.A. and in January everywhere else. Hopefully, it’ll be the foreign-language Oscar entry from Hungary, but you never know. We’ve been there before.”

As important as Cannes is to Barker, he says he missed the first few days of the festival three years ago. That’s because he was doing something he considered an honor: He delivered the College of Communication commencement address at the University of Texas.

“That was really an experience,” he says. “I have never and probably never will speak to 13,000 people again. But it was great.”

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