Berney’s Roll Call Of Success

It’s no surprise that Icon Entertainment is looking to Bob Berney to handle the domestic release of the explosively controversial The Passion Of The Christ. Berney has been behind some of the biggest independent hits in the last few years, from Memento and Y Tu Mama Tambien to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Whale Rider. Although he attributes the success of each to collective efforts, he stresses that a challenging independent release works best by “really working with film-makers to recognize their vision and be organic to that” as well as “executing the campaign without interference from all sorts of studio levels changing it for the sake of change”. 


Charlize Theron hailed him as a genius at the Golden Globes last Sunday, and few can deny Bob Berney has earned his stripes. Here he outlines some of his most successful campaigns. 

Berney loves to have time to prepare his releases, but Monster was an exception. “Everything was against what I normally do on this film,” he says. “We did the deal with DEJ and Media 8 just for theatrical at Toronto 2003 and, knowing that the film wouldn’t actually be finished until November, we had to hustle and make it in time for an end-of-year release.” Key to the release was the belief that lead actress Charlize Theron, also a producer on the film, would be a candidate for awards consideration, a belief which has proved justified since she has already bagged a handful – including the best actress Golden Globe – and is now a front-runner for the Academy Award for best actress. 

Berney says he is wary and careful about releasing films in the competitive awards season months of November and December. “We decided to come in at the end of December and roll the Academy campaign and the release campaign into one,” he explains. “Because of that, the compacted Oscar season was actually a strategic advantage for us.” Theron and director Patty Jenkins were highly supportive of the film, adds Berney, attending ShowEast and the world premiere as closing night of AFI Fm in Los Angeles in November – the same slot which had launched Monster’s Ball two years ago. 

Berney explains that the Christmas release date was the key to the film’s burgeoning success. “A lot of the awards films opened in early December and if you don’t make it straight away, you have to spend time we came out, we were perceived as the hot new film even though we were only three weeks later. The public is so fickle, they think they’ve seen the others.” 

He decided to open Monster on one screen in New York City, but rather than go for a traditional arthouse venue, he booked it into the Loews 19th Street. “It’s a more commercial theatre for studio pictures and people thought I was crazy, but due to the nature of the story, I wanted to reach a downtown audience as well as NYU students.” Monster scored the biggest opening ever at the theatre. 

Meanwhile, Berney’s wife and frequent collaborator on his films – the indomitable publicist Jeanne Berney of The Berney Group/P&F Communications – was faced with building critical support on the film. “Jeanne and her team were able to get big critics to see it early,” he explains. “She took it to Roger Ebert in Chicago and asked him to see it early. He was amazing. We also had to get people over the notion that it was some kind of stunt marketing job, that the film is a film as well as a performance.” Ebert, probably the best-known critic in the US, went wild for Monster, naming it his best film of the year and giving Newmarket a quote which was immediately slapped onto the poster and which most distributors would kill for. “It’s the best performance in the history of cinema,” he raved. For the most part, reviews were good, and Berney anticipates that come Oscar time, Monster will have grossed close to S20m. 


Berney’s first hit as a partner in Newmarket, which he joined in 2002, was HBO Films’ Real Women Have Curves, but his first major crossover success was Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, which this week scored a surprise best actress Oscar nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes. He bought the film after seeing its audience reception at its world premiere screenings at the Toronto film festival. “A lot of distributors left,” he remembers, “but by the end there were tears and standing ovations. Toronto is an audience festival and a good place to gauge word of mouth.” 

Berney planned to open the film as a traditional arthouse release and expand it out once word was out. “We knew we couldn’t open it wide like Disney,• he says, “but if we opened with reviews, the word of mouth we generated would be such that when we expanded into malls and suburbs, they would come back with their kids. The word of mouth had to be there for our plan to work, so I was very careful to schedule it on June 6 when there were no big independent releases and only big car-crash studio movies opening.” Berney says that when Swimming Pool opened a few weeks later the two started playing off each other: “Having two independent hits in the market at the same time is great.


Berney immediately started building the internet campaign for Memento, focusing almost exclusively on the plot. As word of mouth and critical support built from festival appearances, the film was also generating a large ‘internet geek’ audience: “You had to recognize that on some level, Memento was effective because it was a disguised genre film.” 

As in many of Berney’s releases, time was key. “The more time you have to prepare these movies, the better they work. If you can be six months out. that’s ideal,” he says. And exhibitors need to see promises of marketing support which, in Berney’s case, usually involves print advertising booked on a highly targeted basis. “I find you’ve got to be very aggressive with exhibitors and promise to support the film with good print ads across the field and not just in Los Angeles and New York. They should know that they can give screens to the independent, knowing that the campaign appears equal to a studio release. You’ ve got to target the markets that need it and analyse each market so that, every week of release you can prop up the weak spots with advertising.• Memento ran from March 2001 to the end of the summer, and Berney’s entire spend was just S8.5m. 


The key to the crossover success of Alfonso Cuaron’s road movie was a two-headed campaign. “On the one hand, we opened it as an upscale, sexy art film, and on the other we wanted to pitch it to a wide young Mexican male audience in the US. While it was on two screens in New York, it was on 40 or 50 in Los Angeles and Chicago. For the Latino audience, we kept the title in Spanish and went for the teenage boy for whom this was the equivalent of American Pie.” 

Berney says IFC bought the film at Cannes 2001 and watched as it opened in Mexico in June to record­breaking results at the box office: “We had the advantage of it being so successful in Mexico and word of that success traveling up to the US. There was huge pre-awareness in the Latino market and especially within the younger male audiences.” For the arthouse audience, Berney knew that Cuaron was a critics’ favorite and that it could become a sexy date movie for the arthouse crowd. “Reviews were 100% good,” he recalls. “We went out unrated even though Alfonso tried to get it to an ‘R’ from an ‘NC-17’ by replacing some of the scenes.• 

The release was also supported by the film’s multi-millionaire producer/financier Jorge Vergara, who paid for Cuaron and the stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna to travel across the country for publicity purposes. 


When Lions Gate Films pulled out of its US distribution commitments to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, producers Playtone and Gold Circle Films came to Berney and IFC. “This film was a real joint effort,• says Berney. “Gold Circle paid for the marketing spend, while my job was to come up with the overall release strategy. Marketing consultant Paula Silver also worked on the grassroots campaign within the US Greek community. 

Berney sold the film to exhibitors as a mainstream commercial project and took it to ShoWest in March with stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett, and producer Rita Wilson ( aka Mrs Tom Hanks 1- “We opened in eight cities in multiplexes and tried to make it appear a big studio release by taking TV ads. It started to build like crazy, but our idea was to keep it limited in each market. so we added cities but not necessarily screens. Each theatre which had it was selling out. We were almost trying to make it like a London show, so that you would go out to an event which was hard to get in.” 

The screen count built and by August it was playing on 2,000 screens. “If a studio had gone wide with it straight away, it probably would have died,• says Berney. “We needed that time to make it work. People that wouldn’t have liked it in March liked it in September. There was an infectiousness to it.” The challenge for Berney was to keep persuading Gold Circle to spend on it and keep the momentum going. “We spent on TV in certain weeks in certain markets and then let word of mouth carry it.” 

Remarkably, Gold Circle’s entire marketing spend on the picture was around S3om, making Greek Wedding one of the most profitable pictures in history.