Interview: Tom Bernard Rolls with the Changing Tides of Independent Film

Talking Shop and Shooting the Puck with Tom Bernard: An Unfiltered View of the Modern Indie Film Industry


Tom Bernard is an icon.

That may seem like an exaggeration if you don’t know who he his (you probably do), but Mr. Bernard is the figurehead of independent film today. He fostered films that were revolutionary for the directors who made them and the stars who headlined them. Foxcatcher established Steve Carell as a character actor with dramatic capabilities, and Whiplash established Damien Chazelle as a rising star director (you know La La Land? That was him). And those are only his more recent entries. He was there for All About My Mother by Almodóvar, Midnight in Paris, one of Woody Allen’s successful recent features, and the legendary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee. Some of his more recent features were Toni Erdmann and Elle, which earned Isabelle Huppert a best actress nomination at the Oscars.

On a snowy day in late March, in the back of a Red Bank Regional classroom I was given the privilege of an over-the-phone interview with the co-founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard. He told secrets of changing and adapting with the volatile film industry, as well as essential advice for up-and-coming filmmakers. The advice was invaluable for a profession where it can take a long time to get close to the top. He also talked about what makes and breaks a good film, the importance of the story versus the director, and the distinction between festivals in terms of the evolution of an artist’s film.

Mr. Bernard began the interview lightly, stating how much time he had allotted, “Well, go ahead and we’ll see how you’re doing, I’ll cut you off when you start to get dopey.”

Soon, we got into an unfiltered look inside the mechanics of the film industry.

JD: Obviously you have fostered these major movies, do you know anything off the bat that’s really appealing to filmmakers?

TB: What do you mean?

JD: What would bring a film down, and what’s essential in a film?

TB: It’s all about the director. Imagine some of the movies you’ve liked, and trying to tell the plotline to people and the plots sound absurd. But the reason that you like them is the way they tell the story. So, you know, if you look at the plotlines of a lot of the movies that are very successful, they are maybe a little more intellectual than the marvel comics stuff.  Even then, you look at Green Lantern, and Doctor Strange, they’re two mediocre superheroes, and the Green Lantern movie sucked. And Doctor Strange was great, why was Doctor Strange great? Because of the way the guy told the story, the director’s vision. And the director is the key.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Mr. Bernard was in a Jesuit high school in Texas in 1966 when he knew he wanted to work in film. He recalls being influenced by a film festival the high school held, “and the guy who won took a picture for ten minutes of a dead armadillo on the side of the road, but that seemed pretty interesting.”  

He quit playing football at the University of Maryland and started a film series on campus, eventually going to work for New Line Cinema. We also talked about independent filmmakers that believe themselves to be above the organized film business.

TB: They’re so, I don’t know if the word is reggae, they’re never going to leave the circle they’re in. You know what I mean, you know it’s like a guy who’s a bad  musician and he’s trying to be in a band that doesn’t work and he’s contrary, contrary where it’s [the film business] not a renegade business. It’s an inclusive business, and everyone’s included in that. The renegades are in that business, they’re in that business to be able to be a renegade, you can’t be a renegade against that business or outside that business, because it’s the film business.

JD: So obviously it’s extremely competitive. I just wanted to ask you personally, do you have any advice for people that want to break into the film business, if they aren’t in the place they want to be? You would just say wait it out, right, keep trying to do what you love?

TB: Yeah, you got to keep banging against the wall until something happens. You know, you gotta make a million phone calls to get on as a PA (Production Assistant); you gotta find how to get on as a PA. You know, it’s like, the New Jersey State Film Commission has a list of every movie that they’re doing in the summer as well as where they are going to be shooting and where the office is if you want to apply for a job, as a PA on the movie.

JD: I just wanted to ask you something about marketing movies if that’s okay? How has the market evolved and has that affected your standards for what can sell? Are there a lot of movies that were going to theaters are going to Netflix and Amazon?

TB: It changes every two weeks. And if you step out of it, you’re screwed.  And it’s how people like you watch movies. The old people like the traditional style, it’s because there’s so many places where you can get your information about movies now. You design your own system; what you have online that tells you what happens every day. You’ve customized your information system. You may go to rotten tomatoes you may have some crazy .com site guy you like. You may have fandango, but you know, you have found your way of being able to identify movies. I have to figure out how to get my movie in front of you and to make my movie attractive to you to spend money, Especially someone like you, paying ten dollars to go see a film, that’s a lot of money. A movie that might be popular this year might not be popular next year because things will be different.

JD: So you don’t see the way you market movies changing?

TB: It changes every day, I just have to continue to change with it. I’m marketing a movie right now.  I got a movie [Eleanor Coppola’s Paris Can Wait] that Francis Ford Coppola’s 81 year old wife made, and it’s a trip from Cannes to Paris where these people stop at all these restaurants. I got to figure out  how I can get people to connect to that. I gotta get restaurants to make some of the meals that are in the movie. I’m going to try to get the chef to interview the director in one of the top food blogs, it’s a whole process, an ad in the newspaper and a trailer’s just not going to do it.

Eleanor Coppola’s Paris Can Wait. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JD: What do you think the differences are between old festivals where we see movies like The Graduate and Marathon Man and the film festivals now, just concerning the quality, the money, and the purpose?

TB: They’re the same; you know those movies were game changers. At the time they came out, they were the most radical movies that existed. They attacked the morals of the country at that time and the world. And so, festivals are a place that help launch a movie and define a movie. You know if you’re in Cannes Film Festival that’s defining your movie in a certain way. If you’re in Sundance that defines your movie. It’s like what kind of car you drive defines who you are a lot of times. And also certain festivals are harder to get into. Like if you’re in Cannes Film Festival, that notes that your film has a certain quality to have actually made the cut there. And the same with the Toronto Film Festival, Tribeca not so much. And the festivals create these identities by the programmers and what they program. The Toronto festival has a certain amount of quality in that it also defines a lot of movies that might become Oscar movies. So if you’re in there, the Toronto Film Festival is the launch of the Oscar season. So a lot of people that are vying for the Oscars think they’ve got Oscar potential movies put them there. Sundance Film Festival is sort of a place to start your career. You know, most of those movies don’t succeed, but there are a lot of people there looking for new talent to bring into the system.

JD: So there’s not  a stigma, but there’s a vibe to each festival?

TB: Yeah, and there’s a hierarchy with these festivals where  if you play one, the other one’s not going to play you so you really have to make a choice. If you play Sundance, you’re going to have a hard time getting into Cannes. If you play the Telluride film festival, the New York Film Festival might not take you. So there’s this whole sort of exclusivity that these guys look for. Therefore, you have to use that festival that’s going to help identify your film or help promote your film with the image that you want for the project.

Image courtesy of Indiewire

JD: So you almost decide where you want to apply?

TB: Yeah, it’s a marketing tool; it’s helping save your money. And if you don’t have a distributor, a lot of times it’s a sales tool.  You’ll try and define your movie to people that you think would want to buy a movie with that kind of vibe around it.

JD: It almost relates to colleges in that way.  If someone would wants to go to say NYU or USC because that level of prestige surrounds that school.

TB: Yeah. Right. And if you come from NYU, people look at you a certain way; if you come from USC they look at you in a better way. You know, it’s like that. It’s very similar stuff.

JD: You think USC is the best school for that?

TB: Thousand times. it’s the gold. It’s the golden visit.  Make your dad take you to California and take a tour and you’ll go holy ….. Everybody who teaches there works in the business, everyone who goes there gets jobs. Yeah, you come out with a real job.

I ended the eye-opening talk with Tom Bernard with one question, which led him to also list some quality movies.

TB: Are you into hockey?

JD: Yeah, haha, I was actually going to ask you what you love so much about hockey.

TB: Everything.

JD: Everything. Because my dad showed me that one picture of your office and it was all hockey stuff.

TB: Yeah, I love playing hockey, I moved to Texas and didn’t get good enough to play pro because then I would have been working at a rink. Red Army is a movie you should look up. It’s a documentary on Netflix I think, I think you’ll find that’ll blow you away. Jodorowsky’s Dune, is a really good one for you to watch. It’s about a guy putting together all the elements to make the movie Dune, a sci fi trilogy, but it never happened.

Image courtesy of YouTube

But that’ll be very helpful just how someone would put a movie together. That’s what you’re doing. You’re watching the guy put the movie together. And it’s almost revolutionary in the way he does it because all the people he puts together would turn out to be people that were major forces in the industry later.

The insane, unfiltered, eye-opening conversation with Indie film figure Tom Bernard taught many lessons, but one was to never give up. He talked about how sometimes you will be in a position trying to do what you think you’re meant to, and you might say, “maybe this isn’t for me.” But as he says, “you got to keep banging against the wall until something happens.”

Thanks, Mr. Bernard.


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