Taking Offbeat Films Beyond the Niche

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."

"I think [it] goes back to my exhibition days," Berney says, referring to the beginning of his career, when he ran theaters for the AMC chain in Texas, ultimately taking over the Inwood theater in Dallas and making it one of the region's most successful art houses. It was at the Inwood, he recalls, that he was "really getting to know the audience, literally , as they were walking in and out. I loved that. It was almost like running a public service instead of a theater."

Berney was one of the first theater owners to put a bar in his lobby, making the Inwood something of a community center for cinephiles and culture vultures alike; through sharply following his regulars' taste, Berney made such unlikely films as "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Brazil" hits in the buckle of the Bible Belt. (Born in Oklahoma, Berney graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in film and communications.) Indeed it's Berney's experience as a theater owner -- developing hands-on expertise in what grabbed filmgoers, as well as navigating the rough-and-tumble world of exhibition -- that may be the secret to his success. "What I remember from those days is, you try everything," he says. He still haunts movie lobbies around Bronxville, N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Jeanne, and their two teenage sons, just to gauge audience reactions; with his sandy hair and unprepossessing, Everyman looks, it's easy to see how he can blend into a crowd, the better to get into their heads.

Berney moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and became a freelance distribution consultant; after working on "Happiness," about dysfunctional families, pedophilia and sexual obsession, among other things, he was hired by producers Chris Ball and William Tyrer, who were self-distributing "Memento." On the heels of that success -- the $5 million film grossed five times its budget -- Berney went to work at IFC Films, where he oversaw the releases of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (budget, $5 million; gross, $356 million) and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (budget, $5 million; gross, $13 million), but Ball and Tyrer hired him away to run their newly formed Newmarket Films in 2002. Last year, Newmarket was acquired as part of a joint venture by HBO and New Line Cinema to distribute HBO original films deemed worthy of theatrical release, and to produce and acquire films of its own.

Consistent with Berney's self-effacing manner, Picturehouse hasn't made any great splash since it announced its formation at Cannes a year ago; the releases of the Israeli comedy "Ushpizin" and Paul Reiser's memoir "The Thing About My Folks" were disappointments, and the HBO films "Last Days" and "The Notorious Bettie Page" came and went (although "Last Days," Gus Van Sant's experimental drama about Kurt Cobain, has done well on DVD).

But many industry observers say the smart money is on Berney, even when he's keeping his usual likable low profile. "There is no one quite so boring as a man who is universally liked and admired. By this standard, Bob Berney is a very, very boring fellow. He needs just a little Harvey Weinstein flavoring to jazz up his image," says a tongue-in-cheek Jeffrey Wells, who writes about the movie business on his Web site, Hollywood Elsewhere. "Right now he's too mellow, too considerate, and has made too many shrewd decisions about which movies to acquire or co-produce."

Two such movies on the horizon might add a notch or two. . . . But there are two titles on the horizon that might add a notch or two to Berney's belt: "Fur," Picturehouse's first production, which stars Nicole Kidman as the photographer Diane Arbus, will open in the fall, as will Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," a horror-fantasy fable set in Franco-era Spain that received a 25-minute ovation at Cannes last week. But first, he has "A Prairie Home Companion" to open. What's more, as the first high-profile acquisition and release from Picturehouse, the movie is making an important statement. "This is the kind of film that is representative of Picturehouse," he says, "in that it's a specialty film, but it's also a populist film."

Michael Lynne, New Line co-chairman, says the challenge that Berney faces this week exemplifies why they joined forces with him. "Here's a film by a very special filmmaker, a very mainstream cast, and the basic audience is a very ardent core group that doesn't normally go to the movies," Lynne says of "A Prairie Home Companion." "But Bob is very meticulously motivating that core audience to embrace this film, and embrace it with enough ardor that word of mouth will go out to the mainstream audience.

"Now, we'll see if he pulls it off," Lynne adds. "But he has pulled it off before, and not many people have."

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