Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard on Sundance '12

Ever since he co-founded Sony Pictures Classics, an autonomous division of Sony Pictures that specializes in independent films, back in 1991, SPC co-president Tom Bernard—along with co-president Michael Barker—has been a regular fixture at the Sundance Film Festival.

Over the past twenty years, his company has acquired 36 titles at Sundance, including WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE; JUNEBUG, which helped launch the career of Amy Adams; the British crime drama LAYER CAKE, which introduced the world to Daniel Craig; and the bildungsroman AN EDUCATION, which racked up three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Carey Mulligan).

Two films SPC acquired at last year’s Sundance—TAKE SHELTER and THE GUARD—have garnered rave reviews and plenty of awards buzz, and this year Bernard will be on the prowl once more for quality indie fare.

Bernard took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with The Sundance Channel about why this years festival has him particularly excited, his company’s past Sundance successes, and the state of independent cinema.

What makes Sundance 2012 stand out from years past?
I think this year you can really see that [chief programmer] John Cooper has put his stamp on the selection of movies, and these films go full-circle back to when Sundance first started. They really used to comb the earth for any American independent films—and many of them were not that good—and to see them come back with a majority of unsold films and first-time directors, and see the type of quality they have now, I think it’s a real statement. There’s a lot of discovery this year. And Sundance is at the cutting edge of cultural cool right now. You see all these companies come to Sundance to have a little of that cool Sundance brand rub off on them.

What films are you excited about this year?
You’ve got Stephen Frears [LAY THE FAVORITE], Spike Lee [RED HOOK SUMMER], many documentaries like the opening night film, QUEEN OF VERSAILLES. There are a lot of promising films.

Are you dreading engaging in bidding wars for coveted films?
We’ve never gotten into a huge bidding war at Sundance. The highest bidder buys the headline and usually loses money. I have two words for you: HAPPY TEXAS. It’s a great headline if you’re a new company and it sort of puts you on the map, but I think filmmakers are starting to become empowered to make the best decisions for their movies. It’s different than a bidding war because it’s a number of planets that need to be aligned for the best scenario for your film, and the guy with the most money is often not the best guy for your movie. A lot of times people will sell their soul for the cash as opposed to finding the guy who will be the best for their career. I think there will be less and less of [bidding wars].”

Looking back on your twenty years at Sundance, what are some of your favorite Sony Pictures Classics acquisitions at the festival?
AN EDUCATION, JUNEBUG, and FROZEN RIVER are a few that really stand out for us. Those are movies that were truly indie movies; they weren’t necessarily the most media-hyped, but we found a way to work them in the marketplace, and we worked them into the highest level of the awards world, which furthered the movies, the filmmakers’ careers, and the actors’ careers. That’s the kind of discovery we go there looking for.

What are your thoughts on the overall state of independent film?
I think it’s a high time for indie movies because now, your movies will still be seen somewhere even if they don’t get sold at Sundance. I think that’s exciting. And indie films are every bit as good as studio movies from a technical standpoint, and it didn’t used to be that way.

Presented by Sundance Channel and The Daily Beast. Check out all of The Daily Beast's dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival.