Envisioning Apparition: Bob Berney's new distribution banner gets off to a spirited start

With so much distress and uncertainty in the world of specialized distribution, it must be an “apparition” when a muscular new venture materializes in the foggy murk. But, already visible in theatres with impressive results, Bob Berney’s Apparition Films, a partnership with producer/entrepreneur Bill Pohlad, is hardly ghostlike.

Pohlad came up with the name, says Berney. “‘Apparition’ also means vision and we felt the name suggested something exciting on the horizon. A new vision.”

The vision quickly gave rise to some solid successes. Less than half a year in business, the New York-based company has already brought winners like the current Bright Star and crime drama Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day to the big screen and has a future line-up that is easily as impressive.

The excellence, savvy and nimbleness are no surprise, considering Berney’s rep for knowing how to pick films and run companies. A dominant force in the independent world during its glory years, he served in the forefront of Newmarket Films, IFC Films and Picturehouse. He enabled such films as Y Tu Mamá También, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, La Vie en Rose, The Passion of the Christ and Mongol, among many others, to become box-office hits and sometimes break records. Of the 30 top-grossing foreign-language films in this century’s first decade, Berney-led companies had at least five.

But that was then, and 2009 and beyond loom as a whole other ballgame. To steer the challenging course today, Berney and Pohlad have amassed an impressive staff—16 people in New York, seven in L.A. and several in Chicago. There are exhibitor-relations vets like New York-based Bill Thompson and Chicago-based John and Dan Lange, who have worked with Berney over the years. Berney’s wife, PR vet Jeanne Berney, is on the marketing team in New York with Kirk Iwanowski and Molly Albright.

Apparition investor and partner Pohlad is Minneapolis-based. Additionally, he is a co-owner of the Minnesota Twins and, more relevantly, remains an active producer through his River Road Entertainment, the company behind such hits as Brokeback Mountain, A Prairie Home Companion, Into the Wild, and current Oscar doc hopeful and recent Gotham Award winner Food, Inc.

Berney, who wears the hat of CEO at Apparition, worked closely with Pohlad on Prairie, which Picturehouse distributed. But the two had previously crossed paths at a number of film festivals.

Asked how he was able to convince Pohlad to get into distribution at this jumpy juncture, Berney answers, “We had been talking about this over the years. Through his eyes as a producer, he saw distribution from another vantage point. Especially after Into the Wild, he wanted more control [over distribution]. The film needed to expand but the right way wasn’t clear. Yes, it’s rough now but there are so few distributors out there, so we wanted to be smart and get lucky. And it’s important to remember that audiences haven’t said, ‘We don’t want to see independent pictures.’ In fact, audiences keep expanding even though access has become a bottleneck.”

Berney’s partnerships, also including Apparition’s output deal with Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group for ancillary, have a potential upside with regard to product flow. “In the coming years, it’s possible that a River Run film might be best suited to Apparition. Also, Sony, through which we got Boondock Saints II, is already a source of films.”

Apparition buys all domestic rights but may look to foreign in the future. The company is hands-on for domestic theatrical and uses Sony as its sub-distributor to other platforms.

Apparition debuted in September with the arty, critically acclaimed Bright Star, followed by Boondock Saints II and the genre spoof Black Dynamite. As these initial releases suggest, Berney concedes that Apparition is not strictly in the art-house business: “We’re in every kind of film business but focusing on diverse, underserved audiences.”

Released in late October, Boondock Saints II got a lift from the popularity of the first film, a big theatrical disappointment that scored hugely on DVD. “My son loved the first Boondock, which he saw when he was 12. He tipped me off to the sequel’s potential.”

The Troy Duffy-directed sequel, a continuation of the adventures of young amateur Boston Irish-Catholic crime fighters, has been a strong b.o. performer for Apparition. Berney predicts the film will definitely hit $8 million and sock a punch and more in DVD.

Firmly in the art-house camp, Bright Star, a quiet, utterly lovely period romance with the delicacy of acclaimed female-driven films like The Lacemaker and Girl with a Pearl Earring, has held on nicely. Citing the performances of Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw as British poet John Keats, Berney is looking for a boost during awards season.

Bright Star, like New Moon, suggests that chaste is the new sexy. The main characters never get beyond the niceties of old-fashioned, squeaky-clean romance. Berney agrees: “The whole point is that there isn’t a sex scene. Some critics didn’t like that.” At least audiences don’t seem to mind.

He concedes that the Jane Campion picture has a pace and style that is both distinctive and challenging. “The film makes you feel like you’re really there, at that time and place in England, but the emotions are modern. We did get more of a younger audience than we expected.”

But the company didn’t reach the audience it wanted in October with the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, which played festivals as far afield as Sundance, Rio and Oslo. “It did really well at festivals,” notes Berney, “but was a tricky release, a kind of tweener, especially for older black audiences who said, ‘I’ve seen this.’ The film wasn’t just like a bunch of TV sketches thrown together but a loving spoof.”

Yet Berney remains a big believer in the strength of the African-American audience and points to Lionsgate’s Precious as proof. The film is less an art-house phenom, he believes, than a magnet for a broad, largely black audience. He predicts the film could go as high as $80 or $100 million in grosses.

Above all, Berney is bullish on theatrical and Apparition’s upcoming line-up has to be another source of his optimism. The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) as the legendary British monarch, is a stunning, emotionally powerful biopic of the early years of the queen’s early years when she ascended the throne and married her beloved Albert. The film arrived Dec. 18 amidst a groundswell of unusually positive buzz.
Says Berney, “The key to the film’s appeal is that it’s a great romance, with real people, real emotions, real court intrigue. This is Emily’s moment and, come awards time, she will be noticed.”

Set for late March 2010 is The Runaways, which boasts some undeniably commercial elements. Featuring Twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning and just announced as an out-of-competition selection for the upcoming Sundance Festival, the biopic covers the story of ’70s rocker Joan Jett and her Runaways band, an iconic female group in the heyday of muscular, masculine rock. Berney says there’s already buzz about the film, which also doesn’t skirt the issue of Jett’s sexuality.

There’s also no hiding Berney’s enthusiasm when he speaks about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, due in the fall of 2010. Noting that the filmmaker, in spite of having directed only a handful of features, is a cult figure who has been a favorite at Cannes (Malick was named the fest’s Best Director in 1979 for Days of Heaven), Berney is eyeing a Cannes slot to premiere the much-anticipated Brad Pitt/Sean Penn starrer.

Asked which of the changes in the business over the past few years have been the most surprising, Berney cites “a couple of things, both roller coasters. The first change was the huge amount of films being made, which caused the glut. Then we had the radical change brought on by the studios exiting the business and more fully embracing tentpoles. But all along we’ve seen the audience grow and grow and be agnostic about where a film comes from. A film can come from anywhere, so that both big and small indies can break through. Films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Passion of the Christ proved that it’s tough to predict what will break through. And this inability persists. Look at Precious.”

But Berney has a keen eye for what audiences want and is a dogged optimist about theatrical. After all, having begun his career in college as an AMC projectionist, then founding and running a beloved Austin, Texas art house, his roots are in the roar of the big screen, the smell of the popcorn.

“The films that reach audiences are doing better than ever, which has a lot to do with the fact that there are more screens, of which many are provided by the major circuits. Yes, there are fewer distributors, but the audiences are there.”

The biggest challenge right now is in ancillary, Berney contends. “The safety net was DVD, but everything’s changing. It’s not at all that the DVD market has collapsed. Sell-through is down certainly, but look at Netflix. And look at streaming and VOD. In fact, things are better for the indie films although not so for the studio library films.”

And the uncertainty over release windows intensifies. “Windows are being pushed and we don’t know where things will settle. But good films will find their market. The bottom line is that distributors somehow need to be paid instead of films going out for free.”

The changes in watching movies have also meant changes in audiences. “I think the audience now is more diverse, and young audiences are accepting different kinds of films.” There are also changes in how media is used. Says Berney, “Both Boondock and Paranormal Activity used non-traditional media to find their audiences. So new ways to market films may make it possible for more indies to be shown, but it’s too early to know.”

He elaborates on the Boondock promotion: “We used the original film’s fan base, working with Sony and with the filmmaker’s contact list. We also focused on where the demand was, where the DVD really sold well. Once word spread on the Net that there was a sequel—and we used the film’s own website—we opened in the inner cities and suburbs of New York, Boston, Providence and Philly. Interestingly, we held longer in the suburbs. Our core was kids in the 18 to 24 range who remembered the first film from school or college. We used radio to promote advance screenings, but it was initially really very, very viral as the fans actually demanded that the film come to them. So we rolled it out. There’s a cult behind the movie and we accessed it.”

At least the acquisitions game remains familiar. Like other distributors, Apparition scours the film festivals for product and will do the occasional pre-buy, as it did with U.K.-based sales agent Pathé when it grabbed Bright Star only at script stage. Berney remains bullish on subtitled films as he reminds that “at Picturehouse we found subtitled films that crossed over.”

Apparition is also open to no-budget films like a Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity that also frighten with their success. But as Berney in the past and the company in the present have already shown, acquisitions will be very carefully made.

Berney agrees with many that film festivals are emerging as the new art-house circuit. “Festivals are everywhere and they give life to so many small films and provide them with their only theatrical presentation. And the audiences are there.” This development is no threat to commercial theatres, he believes, but benefits the filmmakers. They get the awareness they need for the titles in DVD release, but there’s a trade-off: The fests usually get their films for free.

Berney’s advice to indie filmmakers is to raise enough money not just to get the film completed but to also market, get on the festival circuit, and even pay for the service deals that get films to theatres, this latter becoming more and more a fact of big-screen life—survival, really—beyond the festivals.

And is there anyone not wondering how to get attention for a film in our supersaturated, overwhelming, forever-changing media environment? Berney advises to begin at the festival level that affords press attention and word of mouth. Whether at a festival or not, he recommends creating an event around a film, designing a website, and forging an effective marketing plan with awareness of who the core audience is. He acknowledges that “it’s tough to draw eyeballs to a website. You need an advocate.”

Gone perhaps are the days when Berney, through Newmarket, could find a truly unwanted little film at Toronto called Whale Rider that had a pre-teen New Zealand Maori heroine and no names and turn it into a $20 million grossing art-house hit with a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

As “windows” rattle in this era of multiple screens on multiple devices, Berney, a champion of exhibition, believes that theatres can do much to keep their business robust. He observes that exhibitors are already doing that, especially when it comes to in-house marketing approaches.

In addition to established marketing efforts and increasing the length of runs, “theatres should look carefully at trends and at segmented audiences and take advantage of that,” he advises. “There are in-house tools, like the equivalent of those frequent-flyer cards, that reward. But why not exploit databases of patrons and outreach to loyal filmgoers with well-matched free previews of individual releases in order to spread word of mouth?”
Indeed, luring audiences into seats to catch a glimpse of the Twilight stars well before the final installment or two reach theatres—using The Runaways as bait—might prove as visionary as an “apparition.”