While I love to follow the ups and downs of independent film distributors and the moves through their boardrooms' revolving doors, it is generally not something I write about on this blog. In most cases, industry insider news is somewhat esoteric and not that relevant to the regular discussions we have here. But the news of Bob Berney's sudden and awkward departure from Apparition has become a hot topic, particularly among fans of two of my Top 5 Picks from this year's Sundance Film Festival: The Runaways and Welcome to the Rileys.

With The Twilight Saga's Kristen Stewart at the top of both films' cast lists, The Runaways (see my review) and Welcome to the Rileys (see my review) were among the most high-profile films in Park City this past January.
Both movies were acquired by Apparition shortly after the festival. The Runaways had a relatively short run, opening on March 19 in only 244 theaters (after having initially been promised a wide release). Continued talk of a wide expansion never came to fruition. The reported $10 million-budgeted picture has taken in just under $3.5 million after eight weeks. Welcome to the Rileys is scheduled for theatrical release sometime later this year.

It was late in the day this past Monday, May 10 when the startling news broke that Apparition co-founder Bob Berney had abruptly walked away from his post, blindsiding partner and longtime friend Bill Pohlad as well as the industry. A terse email was sent out to the firm's staff and made public:

To our Apparition colleagues and staff:

As some of you may know, Bob Berney has submitted his resignation to me. I suspect that this news comes as a surprise to many of you. It certainly did to me. So I can?t claim that we have a plan in place yet in the wake of this announcement. I can, however, assure you that we will be working in the days ahead to explore our options regarding his replacement. In the meantime, Valerie Bruce, our Senior Vice President of Business Affairs, will serve as interim COO.

I apologize for whatever confusion and uncertainty this news may cause, but know that we are proud and grateful for all the work that you have put into the company and appreciate your continued support.

Bill Pohlad

Then all heck broke loose, as is the typical response when a sudden and unexpected departure at the top of a major independent film distributor rocks the industry. Mike Fleming at Deadline was on top of the story from the start, outlining some of the history between the two men. "Berney spent the better part of a year raising money after his Picturehouse was shuttered by Warner Bros.," Fleming wrote. "Though he hoped to establish a new company with several filmmakers, Berney wound up aligning with Pohlad as the sole financier when the venture was announced last August. Pohlad and Berney originally said their goal was to acquire and release 8 pictures per year, and Apparition got underway with the Jane Campion-directed Bright Star last fall."

From there the waters get muddier. Initially, speculation was that the deal in which Bill Pohlad's own production company River Road sold Fair Game to Summit Entertainment left a bad taste in Berney's mouth. "Pohlad did not give Apparition the Doug Liman-directed drama Fair Game, which stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in the real-life Valerie Plame political drama, and which premieres in competition at Cannes," wrote Fleming. "That film will be distributed domestically by Summit. Was Berney bitter about not getting to distribute the hot-button film?"

Screen Daily seemed to concur with this analysis. "When Summit Entertainment bought [Fair Game] last month in a deal closed by CAA for River Road and co-financiers Participant Media/Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the terms of the deal were not as rich as expected," said Mike Goodridge at Screen Daily. "Berney is thought to have been surprised by the Summit/Fair Game deal which was presented to him as a fait accompli."

So that seemed to be the cause -- blame it on Summit -- and the future of both Apparition as well as Berney's career remained in doubt. But another seed of discord loomed large, and within 24 hours the picture was beginning to change. An update at Deadline by Mike Fleming now suggested that there were deep-seated disagreements that had festered between the two men over how the company was financed.

"I'll venture it has a lot to do with the fact that the distribution company never got the capital necessary to realize the aspirations of Pohlad and Berney," Fleming said. "The original intention was to line up 3 principal investors to put up $25 million each and run their specialty films through Apparition. Berney would make other acquisitions and build a slate." The cash never materialized, however, and "Pohlad launched the company alone, with an initial investment around $30 million."

Then a third hypothesis began making the rounds of the trades. It appeared that Apparition's distribution of The Runaways might have been an even bigger culprit. Berney was not happy about the film's box office results, and had to publicly defend the release strategy. ?It got good enough reviews but it didn?t cross over,? he told Screen Daily. ?It plays like an art film.? During the course of this week, the issue of The Runaways failing to come anywhere near making back its budget kept entering the picture. Deadline's Mike Fleming wrote, "It didn't help that the early films didn't perform, including Jan Campion's Bright Star and The Runaways (the R rating of the latter kept out Kristen Stewart's teen following)."

An analysis by David Poland in The Hot Blog at Movie City News went even further into the release strategy of The Runaways and its possible connection to the failure at the top of Apparition. "Whether The Runaways was Berney's test or Berney's opportunity, it failed," said Poland. "There is a lot of fighting about how the film was (barely) released, with the accusation coming from Berney's side that Pohlad made promises and then pulled the rug out from under him and the Pohlad side simply pointing to the numbers the film opened to, in spite of a lot of awareness coming out of K-Stew and the sexualization of Dakota Fanning (who needs to do a coming of age movie without her singing... it's bad luck). But either way, one of the year's highest profile bombs."

That notion -- the film's distribution platform was the straw that broke the camel's back -- was surprisingly echoed by Mike Fleming at Deadline, the same writer who had offered up the Summit deal with Fair Game as the primary cause. He pulled back on that and switched gears yesterday. "I can knock down that Fair Game, which Pohlad?s River Road financed along with Participant Media but is being distributed by Summit, [created] the schism," Fleming wrote. "From what I?m told, there was no big disagreement over that film. But I have heard there was significant disagreement between Pohlad and Berney over how to release The Runaways. Berney wanted to go wide on 1200 screens. Instead, the film was platformed and supported with a viral campaign."

So the ducks seem to be lining up in the direction of a failed distribution strategy for The Runaways as the final impetus for Berney's departure. Today, in her indieWIRE column Thompson on Hollywood, Anne Thompson backs that up. "Contrary to one report, not a factor was River Road and Participant?s Fair Game, which is playing in competition at Cannes, supplied by foreign sales company Summit?s Patrick Wachsberger as a substitution for Terrence Malick?s incomplete The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn," Thompson writes, most likely referring to Fleming's initial analysis at Deadline quoted above (which he has since pulled back on). "The movie that most tested the Pohlad/Berney partnership was music biopic The Runaways, which carried high expectations due to Twilight stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. In that case, after a splashy media launch at Sundance, Pohlad altered Berney?s distribution plans, drastically pulling the film back from a planned wide release to a more conservative platform. In fact, the movie played best inside the art-house niche with fans of the original 70s group, topping out at $3.5 million."

So there appears to be a consensus revolving around The Runaways' half-hearted release strategy as the key to Berney's getaway car. Yes, there were problems from the start when Apparition didn't get the capital it needed to release the number of films originally planned. Isn't money the number one cause of divorce? Marriages fail when income sources dry up. Berney and Pohlad never even had their honeymoon, if some reports are correct, and Apparition was doomed from the start. But it's clear that Berney wanted a wide release for The Runaways, Pohlad argued for a limited strategy, the latter won, and the rest is failed box office history.

The big question is -- what's next? Where will Berney end up? More importantly, especially for already-acquired titles like Welcome to the Rileys, what is the future of Apparition? Anne Thompson offers up some predictions. "Berney?s seeing films and looking for work," she writes. "Berney has run through a laundry list of indie labels over his career, from IFC and Newmarket to Picturehouse and Apparition. But he still believes in the theatrical market." It's clear that Berney will end up somewhere, doing what he does best -- acquiring independent films for distribution.

And what about Apparition, with Pohlad now sitting alone at the top? He's already met with employees and assured them their jobs are safe. "Pohlad isn?t expected to rush into replacing Berney, and likely won?t make the hire until well after the May 20th Fair Game premiere at Cannes," Mike Fleming said yesterday at Deadline. "I hear that Pohlad has already met with or scheduled meetings with prospective candidates to take Berney's reins."

Meanwhile, Welcome to the Rileys is scheduled to play the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival. Assuming Pohlad replaces Berney with one or more people, and assuming the company goes on with their release plans for the films they've already acquired, there's no reason to believe anything will derail those films' distribution. But there are other possibilities. It would be interesting if Berney, who was responsible for acquiring Welcome to the Rileys in the first place, bought the film back from Pohlad after ending up somewhere else or starting a new company. Maybe a third party will step in, another distributor looking to snap up a potentially hot property. Or perhaps the producers -- including Ridley and Tony Scott, who just might have some money in the bank -- will band together and self-distribute the picture. Whatever ultimately happens, I certainly don't anticipate the film being shelved or seriously delayed at this point. What the release strategy will be is another story. That will have to wait for another day. Right now it's time to breathe...1, 2, 3...


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
  • Posted: May 13, 2010
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