Bob Berney is the former head of Picturehouse, which was a now-defunct joint venture of HBO and New Line Cinema to release specialty films. (New Line eventually bought out HBO and kept Picturehouse for itself.) When Picturehouse opened its doors, everyone was excited to have another source and buyer of independent films. And while it was in existence, Picturehouse released some wonderful films, including La Vie en Rose and Pan's Labyrinth.
Then a shocking thing happened. New Line was folded into Warner Bros. This was shocking because New Line had huge releases like Lord of the Rings. Why did it need to get folded into WB? I'm sure the bigwigs thought it was a strong business decision but filmmakers were shaking in their boots as they saw the writing on the wall -- less buyers to finance and buy their films. And the filmmakers were right to shake. Almost immediately, Picturehouse's future came into question. Warner Bros. had its own specialty unit -- Warner Independent aka WIP. How could the two co-exist?
They couldn't and in fact, neither would survive. When Warner Bros. took over New Line, it ditched Picturehouse and WIP, explaining that New Line and Warner Bros. could handle any specialty films. On the outside, it was a huge jolt to the system to see both Picturehouse and WIP go. But on the inside, I don't think anyone was surprised that Warner Bros. wanted out of the specialty film business. It's well known that Warner Bros. loves their tentpole films and struggles with releasing small dramas.
Case in point: Slumdog Millionaire. Warner Independent made Slumdog but when the film was finished, WIP was no longer around to shepherd the film through a strong theatrical release. Instead, the Goliath of Warner Bros. was in charge of its release and they didn't see the commercial viability of the film (can you imagine?). They began positioning the film for a DVD release -- that is until Peter Rice at Fox Searchlight rescued it. Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is 20th-Century Fox's specialty film division, saw the promise of what would become a huge Academy Award-winning film so they paid for the rights to jointly release the film with WB.
Fox Searchlight is a beacon of success on the indie film landscape. They have released a number of indie darlings, including Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and most recently, the critically acclaimed The Wrestler and, of course, Slumdog Millionaire. If anyone could successfully release Slumdog, it would be Fox Searchlight. And boy, were they successful!
So, Bob Berney was kicked to the curb after Warner Bros. acquired Picturehouse but don't count him out. He is the peanut butter to the jelly of independent film. He was the one behind the huge marketing success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to indie films. And Warner Bros.' loss will be a venture capitalist's gain.
According to rumor, Berney is teaming with Bill Pohlad of River Road (who has invested in great independent films like Brokeback Mountain) to create a brand-spanking new distribution outfit. And it sounds like they are going to great lengths to incorporate new distribution models in our ever-changing independent film landscape. Hip, hip hooray! Three cheers to new financiers and buyers! We'll be rooting for you Bob!