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Behind the sale at Sundance

Kai Ryssdal Jan 26, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Fifteen of 16 ski lifts are open in Park City, Utah, today. Packed powder, 41 degrees up on the mountain. Which is great, but not what I want to talk about.

The Sundance Film Festival is on this week. Independent filmmakers gathering to show off their movies. Studios — everybody hopes — buying the rights to ’em.

Tom Bernard is the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. He’s in Park City. Tom, thanks for joining us.

Tom Bernard: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: How long have you been coming to Sundance?

Bernard: I’ve been coming to Sundance since 1983.

Ryssdal: Here’s why I ask. It used to be that the buzz coming out to of Sundance was: That’s the place inde filmmakers go, they make a deal and the studios come in and buy the pictures. It seems to me we haven’t been hearing that buzz lately.

Bernard: Well, that’s sort of a myth. There was always the one big movie that got bought from a company that wanted to get on the map. Go back to movies like “Spitfire Grill,” and “Happy Texas.” And big deals were made, and money was paid and headlines were made and the movie were never heard of again. But Sundance is a place where business is done but it’s not big business. It’s not the thing every filmmaker dreams — he’s going to have a screening, a thousand people are going to be in the theater. And when it’s over, people are going to take tickets to wait in line to pay more money than the next guy. It never hasn’t and doesn’t work that way.

Ryssdal: You’ve got a couple of movies up there, Spike Lee’s up there — I understand — with his new film. I mean there’s still people who go to Sundance trying to drum up business, right?

Bernard: Well, it’s much more than that. Sundance is the coolest brand in the culture of the moment. The people that come here are not just filmmakers — you’ve got musicians, you’ve got athletes, you’ve got anyone wants to rub off on the coolness of the Sundance brand. I just walked up the street to do this interview and there’s a girl that has a little hummus lunch kit that she wanted me to have. She had three people with hummus shirts walking down the street handing it out.

Ryssdal: So does that sort of bum you out? You know, that it’s not the place where inde filmmakers go anymore to really preach their craft?

Bernard: You know, it’s always been that. But it’s gotten to the point where the films are now bigger than the brands. The fact is there are more places now for your movie to be seen — which is the goal of I think most filmmakers when they come here. Companies like myself, Sony Pictures Classics, we’ve bought two movies here: “Celeste and Jesse Forever” and a documentary called “Looking for Sugar Man.” And they are going to go down the theatrical route. There’s other movies, I think, that are just going to go straight to cable. So it’s a really vibrant marketplace, it’s just not big dollars being thrown around.

Ryssdal: What do you look for when you’re going to buy an independent film? What was it about “Celeste and Jesse Forever” that made you say, “You know what? I’m going to buy that. I want that?”

Bernard: I’ll tell you. “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is one of the first movies, I think, that’s made about, sort of, the 20-something generation. It’s a relationship movie about a couple going through a divorce. And what I saw when I was in the screening — and sort of deduced by just figuring out what we can do with the picture — is this movie is going to connect to a generation that really hasn’t had a movie made for them.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you very quickly about that generation — the 20-somethings who are out there now trying to find jobs straight out of college, or, you know, looking for a job after they’ve been laid off. Is there any disconnect between what there is going on in Hollywood and Park City this week and what’s going on in the actual economy?

Bernard: No, I don’t think so because I think Park City is full of those people looking for jobs and to somehow connect to the movie industry. Business happens here, it’s a mixing pot for business. And it’s a mixing spot especially for the 20-somethings.

Ryssdal: Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, up in Sundance in Park City, Utah. Tom thanks a lot.

Bernard: OK, thanks.

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