Sony Classics’ Michael Barker talks ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘A Separation’s’ Oscar nom haul

PARK CITY – Tuesday was a good day for Sony Pictures Classics co-president and co-founder  Michael Barker.  Classics scored eight Academy Award nominations including four for Woody Allen’s best picture player “Midnight in Paris” and found itself with three of the foreign language nominees: “A Separation,” “Footnoote” and “In Darkness.” The now legendary independent film distributor also secured distribution rights to the romantic dramedy “Celeste & Jesse” starring Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones and HitFix favorite Elijah Wood.  And yet, when Barker called me to discuss his company’s impressive Oscar haul he immediately turned the tables and wanted to know what films I liked at the festival.  So, if Classics ends up securing “Keep The Lights On” or “Safety Not Guaranteed,” I’ll happily take credit for pushing them over the top for a sale.  The Oscars were top of mind though and Barker admitted that he was once again surprised by some of the selections.

“I always criticize myself for being surprised,” Barker says. “When Oscar season starts to come out I read all you guys as much as I can and I start getting in that mode of being cynical about the Academy and saying ‘The Academy oh man, they”re not going to pay attention to these quality films that don”t gross or they”re not going to pay-they”re not going to have seen a certain movie because you know it”s not in the top five that they should see.’ And then on Oscar morning you go ‘Wow, A Separation was nominated for best screenplay, [‘A Better Life’s’ Demian Bichir]  was nominated for best actor. ‘ And you realize the Academy really does pay attention to quality stuff and that stuff is in there, Terrence Malick is in there.  Glenn Close is in there.”

Classics had one of its biggest hits in years with “Paris,” a critically acclaimed romantic comedy that also became Allen’s highest grossing picture ever.  For Barker, the best picture, director and writing nominations were reassuring (the film had the earliest release date among all the nominees, May), but it was the fourth nod that make him take notice.

Barker reveals, “I’m really surprised at the art direction [nod] for ‘Midnight in Paris’ because this is a year where all those big movies had those really expensive spectacular production designs and for a movie like ‘Midnight in Paris’ to get in there? That”s a very cool thing that a low budget movie can get in there with a more subtle production design palette you know?”

Moreover, its the audience reaction to “Paris” which has been most rewarding to the indie film vet.

“The proudest element of ‘Midnight in Paris’ for us is the film opened on May 20th.  It”s still on the screen.  It never came off the screen,” Barker says. “It”s in its ninth month and we”re going to go wider again this weekend.  It was out on DVD on December 20th and I would not be surprised if the film goes over $60 million.  We”re just really proud of those facts.”

And Barker and Classics co-president Tom Bernard have good reason to be.  Classics is the most consistently profitable division of Sony Pictures and that continued success is one reason the bigs at Sony trust the duos choices.  They don’t have big flops and when a rare one occurs its always made up by another hit by the end of the year.  And the profit margin between big Sony’s “Moneyball,” another best picture nominee, and “Paris”? Well, that’s not something big Sony likely wants to dwell on.

The Classics teams’ taste in international film is pretty much unparalleled among their peers (sorry Harvey) and they once again have a potential word-of-mouth break out with “A Separation.” And for those curious about the award-winning Iranian drama who live outside cinephile cities such as New York and Los Angeles, you’ll soon get your chance to catch it before Oscar Sunday.

“Our plan was on this last weekend to go a little broader in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and then this weekend we”re going to take some more cities and every week we”re going to take a few more cities,” Barker reveals.  “By Oscar weekend ‘A Separation’ will easily be in the top 100 markets and we”ll see what happens.  What”s great about the Academy nominations, especially getting screenplay, is that it gives the film a kind of profile that a [potential moviegoer will go] ‘Hey, maybe we should go see that movie’ or there is something special about it.  Once the people get into this theater to see it the movie is such a homerun for them and the word-of-mouth is so strong that, if anything, these nominations will help propagate that, help jumpstart that word of mouth even more.”

Barker also notes that “A Separation’s” universal appeal has been seen at box offices around the world where it’s slowly becoming an international art house hit.

“Every year there is one or two foreign films that have that ability to crossover,” Barker says. “You”re never sure what they”re going to be.  I mean three years ago it was ‘The Secret in Their Eyes.’  Several years ago it ‘The Lives of Others.’ This year ‘A Separation’ is going to be one of those films.”

And if it manages to snag the Oscar on February 26?  Watch out.

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