THE INNOVATORS Re-Imagining the Movies

Taking Offbeat Films Beyond the Niche

Bob Berney is masterminding this week's release of
Bob Berney is masterminding this week's release of "A Prairie Home Companion." (Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

While he was filming "A Prairie Home Companion" in St. Paul, Minn., last August, Robert Altman said in an interview with a local paper that he hoped his film would find "the kind of audience that went to Mel Gibson's Jesus picture."

By "Jesus picture," of course, the octogenarian filmmaker meant Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." And by "audience," he meant the tens of millions of people who, alienated by most mainstream movies, nonetheless turned out in droves to earn "The Passion" a stunning $370 million at the box office.

It's unclear from Altman's language whether he numbers himself among the Christian faithful who made "The Passion" such an unlikely hit. But whatever prayers he may have sent up during that interview were answered the following October, when Bob Berney -- president of newly formed Picturehouse Entertainment and the man industry insiders credit with "The Passion's" phenomenal success -- bought "A Prairie Home Companion" having seen only the first half of the film.

"The movie is unusual," Berney admitted in March, after attending "A Prairie Home Companion's" North American premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. "It's like a variety show, not a linear movie. It's all shot live in one take." Referring to the diverse constituencies reflected in the film itself -- how often will you hear the names Garrison Keillor and Lindsay Lohan in the same sentence? -- Berney says "A Prairie Home Companion" is "the kind of film that we should be doing, that maybe seems pretty strange on the surface but that can connect with an audience in a different way."

You hear "connect with an audience" a lot when you talk to people in the movie business, but whereas the term is usually Hollywood-speak for "take the money and run," Berney has earned the right to use it. Although his masterly distribution and marketing strategy for "The Passion" got him the sort of press previously reserved for larger-than-life showmen such as Harvey Weinstein, the 52-year-old Berney had been quietly succeeding for years at taking films of otherwise limited appeal and making them into mainstream hits.

"Happiness," "Memento," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Whale Rider," "Monster" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" are all examples of Berney's strategy: Find a movie's core audience, then carefully track their word-of-mouth; if it's strongly positive, adjust the advertising and increase the number of screens the film is playing on to make it available to a wider audience. (Berney gauges word-of-mouth through exit polls, talking to theater owners and managers, keeping a close eye on attendance from one day to the next and and often by showing up at theaters himself. "It's feeling the audience reaction more than anything else," he says.)

From "Memento," a quirky mystery that unfolded in reverse time, to "The Passion," a bloodily literalistic take on a Passion play that was filmed in Latin and Aramaic, Berney's hits have all started as often provocative niche pictures and ended as movies people felt they had to see in order to be culturally literate.

"A Prairie Home Companion," which opens Friday, carries none of the religious controversy or ideological baggage that attended "The Passion" (and that Gibson manipulated with the skill of a born-again P.T. Barnum), but it has its own challenges. The film version of Garrison Keillor's long-running National Public Radio variety show is less a straight-ahead adaptation than a loose meditation, with Altman's characteristically fluid camera and multitude of microphones moving in and around a fictional radio show that is embarking on its final broadcast. The film features Lohan, but its real stars are such middle-aged icons as Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Keillor himself; its discursive narrative may be confounding to viewers unfamiliar with Altman's signature free-form style, and its humor -- which ranges from sweetly gentle to harmlessly ribald -- doesn't hew to the broad physical humor of most multiplex comedies.

Berney's first task, he says, is to make sure that the millions of people who listen to the radio show each week know about the movie and, most important, know that it was written by and stars its soft-spoken host, Keillor. On Thursday, 100 local NPR stations will hold screenings of the film as part of their pledge drives, and this weekend's radio show will be broadcast from the Hollywood Bowl, where Keillor's co-stars in the film will join him onstage. Because the film is relatively family-friendly, Berney has reached out to faith-based communities, and the electronics chain Best Buy has agreed to give away behind-the-scenes DVDs about the film, and play clips on their TV sets.

And, in addition to the usual TV ads and national media, Berney has made sure that Altman and members of the cast have been available to lots of local newspapers for stories, to accentuate the film's down-home vibe. "People should go see this film after having a potluck dinner," Berney explained in a recent phone conversation. "That's why we're hosting the NPR events, where people go together, just like they sit around and listen to the show."

At a time when the film industry is trying to find its way through the new thicket of digital realities -- from deciding on standards for digital projection to collapsing the traditional theater-to-DVD window -- Berney is an iconoclast, if only because he sticks so tenaciously to the fundamentals. Heretically -- at least if you listen to the likes of Steven Soderbergh and an increasingly vocal group of filmmakers who are casting their lot with the digital future -- Berney still believes in bricks-and-mortar theaters as crucial to the success of a film. This is a guy who, when he talks about word of mouth, means the old-fashioned kind where friends actually talk to one another, not bash away at their BlackBerrys.

Christine Vachon, a producer who has worked with Berney on "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Happiness" and, this past spring, "The Notorious Bettie Page," credits Berney with possessing "a real love of the movies, which more and more is much fewer and farther between. People tend to be much more concerned with the bottom line and think more with their heads than their hearts, and people who are really good at this business think with both."

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