Interview: Michael Barker talks 'Midnight in Paris,' 'Take Shelter' and 20 years of Sony Classics

Posted by · 11:28 am · December 6th, 2011

“It’s an exciting day,” Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker says by phone the day his company’s films racked up eight Independent Spirit Award nominations last week. “I’m really happy for ‘Take Shelter.’ If ever there was a movie that justified the Independent Spirit Awards, it’s a movie like ‘Take Shelter.'”

Indeed, Jeff Nichols’ stripped-down focus on a father and a husband’s descent into paranoia was a modest affair, and the intimacy of the production, actor Michael Shannon said in advance of the film’s release, is what drove the characters and the relationships on the screen. And it’s most heartening, Barker says, that Shannon is getting recognition.

“I”m really thrilled that the guy”s finally getting his dues,” he says. “My partner [Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard] and I, I mean, we think this is like the greatest actor going right now. We saw him in this play off Broadway and he knocked our socks off, which helped cause us to make an offer on the movie before we”d even seen it. And then ‘Boardwalk Empire’ this year, this season he”s just amazing.”

But “Take Shelter” is just a slice of the Sony Classics pie this year, as the company — celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2011 — has a typically full slate of awards contenders to nurture.

There is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which has been held in theaters long enough to become a box office story and is a definite contender for major Oscar recognition. There is “A Dangerous Method,” David Cronenberg’s study of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. There is also “Carnage,” adapted from the hit play “God of Carnage” with a delicious cast.

And then there are the foreign films. Sony Classics has always been a haven and an outlet for international cinema, starting with Pedro Almodóvar, well into his second decade of being in business with Barker and Bernard and releasing “The Skin I Live In” this year. Typically their acquisitions dominate the list of Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. This year they’re also releasing “In Darkness,” “Footnote” and “A Separation,” among others.

But “Take Shelter” was the dominant film for Barker at the Spirits, amid a the usual array surprises, he says.

“The Spirit Awards always surprises me and it”s always a mixed blessing,” he says. “There”s no Glenn Close, there”s no George Clooney, there”s no Woody Allen, but then it dawns on me, okay, been there before. I remember when we had ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ and it was nominated in every category but Best Actor and Best Director. And I remember ‘Get Low,’ it got nominations but not Best Actor for Robert Duvall. It”s really obvious they shy away from the kind of established names, and to me that”s kind of frustrating. But then I’m thrilled that Darius Khondji and Corey Stoll (cinematographer and star of ‘Midnight in Paris,’ respectively] get recognized.”

When it comes to a heavy slate of contenders, though, especially those from the indie sector, it can be difficult to know where to place your chips. Early on an emphasis was placed on lead actress consideration for Jodie Foster in “Carnage.” The film’s entire quartet has since been announced as supporting for the purposes of awards campaigning and is a bit of a long-shot at best. “A Dangerous Method” hasn’t really picked up steam in the precursor circuit, either. You have to keep your finger to the wind and note when it shifts, allowing the season to help make your decisions along the way.

“Every year we push everything that we feel has any possibility,” Barker says, “and as these things get announced and as the critics and the journalists write about them, you”re able to focus on what your possibilities are. But you kind of start pretty wide, you know, with things that you think are possible. Something I was really disappointed in is that Vera Farmiga was not nominated for the Best First Film or Best Actress [for her film ‘Higher Ground’], and I really think she deserved that. She was nominated for the Gotham Awards. So you get these surprises, but every one of these groups is really different in their makeup, in their demographics, in the way they choose these things. I don”t think we”ve ever given any one short shrift that has an opportunity.”

And so a showing like “Take Shelter” had with Independent Spirit Award nominations, nailing down bids for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead, Best Supporting Female and the Piaget Producers Award, can be encouraging. It can be added fuel for dying embers or the much-needed spark of life to sending an entry on its way through the season.

“In years past when we”ve gotten a substantial number of nominations, you realize there is a possibility that a Jeff Nichols might be considered [by the Academy] for screenplay, or Michael Shannon for Best Actor,” Barker says. “I mean, two years ago when we had ‘Frozen River,’ it was really these nominations that we felt put Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt kind of in people”s faces. And then they”re both nominated for the Oscars. So you never know what”s going to happen, but it certainly makes things be a little more possible.”

The other notable film for the company so far has been Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which has made nearly $56 million at the domestic box office to become the director’s highest grossing film to date. Since its Cannes debut and subsequent counter-programming summer release, the film has stirred talk of Oscar consideration. Barker zeroes in on why he thinks the film has succeeded: It has something to do with the emotional climate of the times.

“I think because of the volatility of what everyone”s going through with the economic crisis, I think there is a tendency for audiences to prefer less-serious movies,” he says. “And I think in that atmosphere a film like ‘Midnight in Paris’ can really take off.”

And Barker feels that Sony Classics’ experience with Allen’s latest has been a real confirmation that the company’s approach to releasing films really works. The film was slated for a May 20 release, going up against “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and by design. “We said, ‘We’re the alternative entertainment,'” Barker says. “Everybody else was afraid of that date. We had planned a kind of slow release. The opening was so huge that we moved up the wide date by two weeks and actually that wide date became 900-something screens as opposed to 600. And the whole plan was then going after the young audience for the July 4th weekend with spots that highlighted Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, and the younger audiences started to come.”

The film was pushed out yet again on November 30, to 300+ screens, looking to capitalize on the modest awards exposure it’s seen so far. It’s set for DVD and Blu-ray release on December 20, a date that was also pushed back as it was seen as a solid bet for holiday business.

Meanwhile, Sony Classics has rather quietly celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. It’s an observation Barker is flattered by. Not of the anniversary itself, but of the modest manner in which it’s been celebrated.

“Yes, Tom and I, as of September, have been together 30 years, but we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary in December,” he says. “And you know what? I’m happy you said that, because Tom and I have always felt it’s about the films and it’s about the filmmakers and we want to put them out front, and I was hoping that would be the impression.”

And the highlight reel is long and memorable for Barker, naturally. There are too many to name, but I push him for a few memories.

“I mean, the number of films we”ve had with Pedro and Agustin Almodóvar, we”ve grown with them over many films and it”s been really gratifying, both personally and professionally,” he says. “But there”s so many moments over the years, you know, the success of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’; doing that, pulling that off was so exciting. There are just moments throughout our career, the first film, ‘Howard’s End,’  and ‘An Education.’

“I, of course, have personal favorites, like ‘Waltz with Bashir.’ I”ll never forget the moment we sent the film to the Academy and we said, ‘We”re not sure which categories this film qualifies for.’ Bruce Davis called me up and said, ‘We may have a first: we have a film that qualifies for Best Picture, Best Foreign Film, Best Documentary, and Best Animated Feature.’  And then movies like ‘A Prophet’ and ‘The White Ribbon.’ We feel like we really make a difference to those films, and those films have the kind of perfection that become evergreens. We are so fortunate”

Here’s to 20 more years.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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