Bringing Gems to the Big Screen
A Q&A with RTF alum and famed film distributor Bob Berney
For the past 20 years, Bob Berney has proven himself a preeminent force in the international film world with his talent for film acquisition, marketing and distribution. He is known for bringing smart, successful films like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Drive,” “The Big Sick” and “Manchester by the Sea” to the big screen, often taking risks on movies that might not have otherwise made it. He also founded some of the most successful independent film companies, including IFC Films, Newmarket Films, Picturehouse and FilmDistrict. Since 2000, Bob has been associated with over $1 billion in U.S. Box Office revenue and has helped to delight audiences with his keen eye, good taste and business sense. He has trusted relationships with filmmakers, theater circuits and industry executives around the world, making himself a go-to distribution partner for many independent filmmakers.
But before Bob became a legend in the film world, he was a student at UT Austin, where he built the foundation for his long and successful career. We sat down with him to learn more about his time in the Radio-Television-Film department and about the ins and outs film distribution ahead of Sundance 2023.
Here’s what he had to say.
What brought you to UT to study RTF?
I’ve always been excited about movies. It really came from the theatrical, movie theater experience. I had relatives that lived in Austin and always visited growing up. The city and the music and the vibe of Austin was really attractive. I also went to a lot of the movie screenings at the Paramount. So there were a lot of things in Austin even outside the university that were really interesting to me.
What got you interested in film distribution?
After I graduated, the first thing I did was I got involved in movie theaters, both in Houston and Dallas, particularly one called the Inwood Theatre in Dallas, an art house that played indie films. It was one of the first film houses that had a bar in the lobby. After the movies people piled out and talked in the lobby about what they had seen. It became a community. We did a lot of film festivals there, brought people in from L.A. and New York. It became really a center of film community in Dallas. From there, I met a lot of people in the distribution business. There were some local investors that started a company called Film Dallas that I went to work for. That got me in the distribution side.
It was really that excitement of seeing an audience get excited about a movie, looking at what companies did to promote their movies and get audiences in, that attracted me to the distribution side. In school, you learn how to make a movie. But you also have to have a broader view of the audience, the business and whatever you need to get the movie shown to people. Connecting filmmakers to audiences has been my interest all the time. Originally I thought I might become a writer and director. But maybe I was too nervous about that, too. That’s pretty rare that you can do that.
Can you tell me about the day-to-day work of a film distributor?
As an independent distributor, we both acquire and market films. So we are going to festivals looking for films to buy or to license. At the same time, we might have a film already completed to put into a festival to market it to audiences. Marketing applies across the board from theatrical distribution to streaming to other kinds of home entertainment like video-on-demand. No matter the platform, you have to look at how to market a film, whether selling it to the public or to a streamer. You have to try to convince them there is an angle, a way you are going to get people in, either by the story or the filmmakers. You have to have some kind of hook to get it made.
Depending on where we are in the cycle of a film, marketing involves planning how we are going to release a film, deciding what theater works for this kind of film, planning the release. It’s a lot of logistics. At the same time, we are looking for new films to buy and work on. We go to a lot of film festivals. And it includes a lot of creative aspects, as well. We make the posters and the trailers, digital spots, websites for the films. That’s a really fun interesting part. We are also talking to critics and trying to show them what we are thinking of with the film and get their support. It’s a 24/7 around the clock job, but I just love it. I’ve done it so long, but I’m still excited by it.
How do you find good films to distribute and promote?
A lot of films get noticed in film festivals — SXSW, Cannes, Toronto, Telluride. I find that both in marketing and looking for films to acquire, these festivals have been important because they do a lot of work for you. They filter down the number of films. And as a distributor you get to look at those films. As a marketer, we get to put our films in festivals. It’s also trying to analyze your audience. It’s important to choose the right festival if you want to get your film marketed or distributed.
What advice do you have for filmmakers?
For your first films, try to tell a story you know, that’s from your heart that you have to get out. It might be hard, but I think that’s the way you tell the story that you have, rather than analyze every other film that has worked and copy it. You can do that. You can try to find an original take on something that has been done before. But a lot of times it’s the personal film that really breaks through.
As a director or writer, it’s also really important to understand the business side of making movies. If you are too siloed you might not get your movie made if you don’t understand the audience or the business. But you don’t want to go too far the other way either. It’s a mistake as a filmmaker to only think about the business. You have to think about the story you want to tell.
What about opportunities for diverse filmmakers?
I think it is a good time for women and people of color. There’s more possibility of getting new perspectives and stories. The independent film world has always been more open to women, to Latinx filmmakers, but the studios also are now, as well. Everything is so institutional and hard to change, but I think it is happening. You are starting to see more top-level executives of color. I am optimistic about that. The audience is there. But many audiences are still underserved and hungry for different stories.
What effect are streaming services having on the film industry?
It’s been a complete change with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Paramount. They have really changed the game because they are building subscribers rather than looking at the individual profit or loss of one film. For studios, the profit or loss of one film is critical. Streaming has upended the whole way we look at the business. When the pandemic hit, it really altered the business. Theaters were closed during that time. The streamers gained a huge advantage over the movie studios. Now we are seeing what happens after that. We are witnessing a kind of comeback of the theatrical experience. However, I’m not sure it will ever become what it was.
At the end of the day, with streaming, there are probably more opportunities. More films are being made. So it’s better in that regard, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you are looking at someone who wants to get their film financed and can’t. I do think there are more opportunities. However, streamers in the beginning were more experimental, trying to get more films made. Now that they have the control they become more like Hollywood studios. They only want big stars. As they’ve grown, it’s become a little more difficult for true independents and first-time filmmakers to get in.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I lived in New York a long time. If you are away from Hollywood, sometimes you are an outsider. But that can be good. Sometimes it’s the films that got rejected that I ended up working on. The system is so rigid, but I was able to get these films and prove people wrong, like “Monster.” Producers thought they were making a B movie horror film, but Patty Jenkins thought she was making this amazing character study and a societal comment on the downtrodden. And she won an Academy Award. Or “Manchester By the Sea.” That was considered too dark and too heavy. It played everywhere. I think people responded to the town and the characters in that movie. I think my career has been very much betting on films that weren’t obvious and finding that there was an audience for them. That’s fun, when you find things people aren’t sure of and it works and sells a lot of tickets and gets award. That’s the fun part for me, but it’s a ton of work.
What advice do you have for UT film students?
Keep an eye on what you really want to do, the stories you want to tell and not get overwhelmed by the hard work of school and feeling like it’s impossible to break into the business and get in. It’s possible. Even when I was going to school, I never knew how it would end up and if I would actually be able to have a career in the film business. UT gave me a great starting point, and it kept me focused on what I want to do. It’s important, too, to realize that there are more opportunities than you think. If you work hard and have the right stories to tell, it’s possible to have a career and a life in the area you want. But you have to make your own way. Internships are really important, and there are a lot of them. There are ways to see different parts of the entertainment business to see what parts you might enjoy.
What are some things people should look out for this year at Sundance?
Documentaries are always an important category at Sundance, and this year’s U.S. and world cinema documentaries look strong, including a Texas story “Going Varsity in Mariachi” and several films on the war in Ukraine. Some of the narrative films that look interesting include “Cat Person,” “Magazine Dreams” and “Theatre Camp,” among many others. There are always amazing discoveries at Sundance.