With Bob in the Big Leagues, Indies Can Breathe Easy

On the evening of Wednesday, March 23, the members of the independent film world gathered to toast the New York premiere of Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose were positively giddy. Bob Berney had just parlayed the distribution arm of Newmarket Films into a new joint venture with HBO and New Line-creating a major force in the specialized film world to be based out of New York City. It meant the end of the line for Fine Line, New Line’s original specialized subsidiary, but more importantly for those sipping cocktails at DVF Studio in the West Village, the end of a major independent player in Newmarket. Among those atwitter were actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patricia Clarkson-all wanting to know: What does this mean? The consensus: It’s all good. For sure, it’s good for Mr. Berney. But, hey, it’s good for us, too.

“Whoa, this is going to change things, and while it’s changing things, it’s going to create opportunities for people,” said former U.A. head Bingham Ray about what people were saying at the after-party. “I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t see that this was a real opportunity.”

Mr. Berney joined partners William Tyrer and Chris Ball at Newmarket Films in the summer of 2002. Under his direction, the independently owned and financed company flourished on a diet of shrewd acquisitions and service deals-common within the distribution industry-the most famous of which was the one struck on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. As president and head of its distribution arm, Mr. Berney quickly made wine out of water with the successful releases of Monster and Whale Rider before he hit pay dirt with The Passion. Although Mr. Berney proved time in and time out that he could run with the big boys-the Fox Searchlights and Focus Features of this world-his company was still an independent, and it still competed with other independents for smaller films.

“He was the 6,000-pound gorilla in [the independent] world,” said John Sloss, an entertainment attorney who specializes in film sales. “So I think with him crossing over into the more corporate-oriented specialized world, it does create opportunities for the pure independents.”

For a time, Paramount courted the independent film company with an eye towards revamping its languishing Paramount Classics. According to Variety, the two sides could not reach an agreement due to “personalities, money … and timing”-the trifecta of Hollywood deal breakers. Mr. Berney split from his business partners soon after they disagreed on the terms of a potential deal with Paramount, sources told The Observer. Although the details of the new venture are still being hammered out, the pervasive assumption around town is that HBO and New Line will want the new company to compete on the level of studio subsidiaries.

“Once you get into a corporation, unless you are completely autonomous, you end up with a lot of baggage,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “HBO has needs. And the companies have ambitions for growing businesses. And I would think with the prototype of Fox Searchlight and now Paramount Classics ratcheting up, it appears that HBO and New Line are going to compete in that arena.”

This is not to say that Mr. Berney will no longer traffic in smaller-budget films, but it seems safe to say that it will not be the new company’s entire diet, like it was at Newmarket, which means more elbow room for independent film companies operating exclusively in that sphere.

“There’s definitely one less company that’s chasing after films that are in $1 million to $5 million range,” said Ryan Werner, the head of distribution at Wellspring. “There are not that many companies now, and as we try to grow, obviously, yes, the less competition the better.”

“On more than one occasion, I have pursued the exact same films that Bob Berney has. And I’m not afraid to say that,” said Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm. But now? “I think it is more than likely that they will be competing with companies that are larger than them rather than smaller than them. It just seems to make sense. And it just opens some possibilities [for growth].”

Moreover, many feel that there is now a little wiggle room for people who are looking to start companies.

“There’s a gap,” said Mr. Bernard. “You look at a company like ThinkFilm, it opens the door for them to have a little more room in the marketplace. And they seem to be expanding. And I think there’s room out there for another indie company with Bob moving into the HBO world.”

Mr. Ray, who founded the now-defunct October Films in 1990, agrees. He foresees a marked change in the marketplace and is now optimistic about starting a new independent venture. “I don’t think the same could be said a year ago at this time.”

But not everyone is seeing the turn of events as optimistically. Mr. Werner is the first to point out that “I’m sure there is going to be another new company any day to come in. That’s just how it works.” And Eamonn Bowles, head of Magnolia Pictures, doesn’t think Mr. Berney will change his strategy significantly. “I don’t know if he’s going to be doing things a whole lot differently than he did-maybe just with a little more money to it.” He added, “But he’s still going to be in the same arena with the people that he’s competing with.”

But can it really be the same in a corporate environment? Newmarket never shied away from controversy. Their Academy Award hopeful this year, the Kevin Bacon feature The Woodsman, took a sympathetic look at a pedophile. The big studios do not like the idea of pedophilia.

“Bob was somebody who was in a position, as a stand-alone indie, to take on whatever product he saw fit,” said Mr. Urman. “And some of his choices-in an eclectic way-were choices that could only have been made by a stand-alone indie.” He added, “He clearly would not be in a position to do a deal with Mr. Mel Gibson to distribute Mr. Mel Gibson’s extremely controversial Jesus movie.”

Whether or not Mr. Berney finds a way to negotiate the perils of working within a media conglomerate, only time will tell. But nobody denies that the well-liked Mr. Berney has moved up-and the independent film community thanks him for it.

“It’s like a really good baseball trade,” said Mr. Ray. “It’s good for both teams.”