Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/05/21

Keeping Faith. Fatima simultaneously debuted on VOD and in theaters last August but, in the midst of a pandemic, relatively few people made the pilgrimage to the local theater to take in the story of one of the world’s most famous miracles on the big screen. Now, just in time for Mother’s Day, the story of the Mother of the Church’s reported appearance to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917 is back in theaters beginning this Friday (5/7) for as long as the audience is there. And seeing as the event is the work of the married marketing and distribution duo behind The Passion of the Christ and My Big Fat Greek Wedding – both of which had spectacularly long theater runs – that could be a while.

As Catholics, Bob and Jeanne Berney believe in miracles – and why not? Some might say the married couple’s acquisition of the Los Angeles-based independent film marketing and distribution company from the media giant Time Warner is something of a David and Goliath story.

Their story follows the trailer for Fatima below.

Rated PG-13, Fatima will be rereleased across the country this Friday (5/7), exclusively at AMC Theatres. Find show times and purchase tickets at AMC Theatres’ special Fan Fave price of $5 at The movie stars Joaquim de Almeida, Goran Višnjić (Timeless, ER), Stephanie Gil, Lúcia Moniz and Harvey Keitel (The Irishman). Writing credits go to Valerio D’Annunzio, Barbara Nicolosi and Marco Pontecorvo (who also directs).

JWK: So, you guys have an interesting story. How did you meet – and how did you end up acquiring a film distribution from the likes of Time Warner? Don’t those kinds of things usually go the other way?

Bob Berney: We originally met back in Dallas where I first started when I was running a movie theater. That’s where I met Jeanne. We’ve had a long journey since. Sometimes working together at different companies. Jeanne ran a big public relations called Rogers & Cowan. Sometimes she would work on the films I was releasing at various companies. At other times we’d actually work together as executives at the same company. We ended up re-forming Picturehouse. We bought the sort of brand and logo from Time Warner and we’ve been working on that together.

Jeanne Berney: Not only is it a long story. It started in Dallas. We then moved to Los Angeles. Then we moved to New York and now we’re back in Los Angeles.

JWK: How long have you guys been married?

BB/JB: 35 years.

JWK: So, you were married during most of this time?

BB: We were – which is unusual in the film business, I think – that a couple works together and stays together.

JB: But it’s kept us sane because, you know, if Bob was  gone (at) a film festival, I was never jealous because I knew how much work it was.  I think that really was one of the secrets to this longstanding life and marriage we’ve had. Also, our children (kept us) very grounded in a business where things are so fleeting.

JWK: How many kids do you have?

JB: Two boys.

JWK: Are they in the entertainment business too?

JB: Yep. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We have a son at Netflix and a son at Universal Pictures.

BB: Sean at Netflix is in the acquisition and production area. He will acquire films and then also work on scripts and projects before they’re filming. Liam, who’s at Universal, is on the theatrical distribution analyst side. So, they’re both in different spectrums – from streaming to theatrical.

JB: Together we would have a great company.

JWK: Both of you are in the marketing area, right?

BB: Marketing, distribution and sales. Me coming from the theater side and understanding the distribution and sales side in the theatrical area.

JB: I came up through the public relations side. (I went to) the University of Minnesota (and) got a journalism degree. I didn’t want to be a journalist. I decided I liked the PR side. So, our skills were a good complement to each other. And, you know, in this business you can’t discount loyalty. It’s really an important quality and that’s helped our longevity.

JWK: So, as a couple, how did you basically managed to take over a film company from Time Warner? How does that happen?

BB: It’s interesting because, at the time, in the early days of Picturehouse, it was a joint venture between New Line Cinema and HBO which are, of course, both Time Warner companies. During that time, New Line was folded into Warner Bros. and closed. So Picturehouse – although it remained open for a while – then became sort of inactive. We decided we wanted to keep it going. So, we were able to acquire the brand from Warner Bros…We wanted to keep those (independent) films going (as) they had moved on to big tentpole movies. So, it really worked out. They were very wonderful to let us acquire the brand and keep it going.

JWK: You seem attracted to films that touch on faith. Do you bring your personal faith to the business?

BB: Yeah. I mean we’ve done all types of films but we certainly have been known for some of the bigger faith films, including The Passion of the Christ. It’s also recognizing in a way an under-served market in the film business which is also why we responded to Fatima. I had an aunt in South Texas who went there many times and I always remember as a kid learning the story from her, as well as from school. So, it’s always been part of our lives and to be able to bring it into the movies has been fantastic.

JB: I would add to that that to make it on the independent side of the business, you never get the easy movies. They’re always a challenge or they would be put out by the big studios. Because we’re independent, we can choose where we want to put our energy and what we want to work on. Because of The Passion of the Christ, which is still today the highest-grossing independent film of all time, we were brought a lot of Catholic or faith movies. Many of them might have been wonderful stories but they didn’t feel like they were something that you wanted to put on the screen and ask people to pay $15 to see…

…When we saw (Fatima) it was just a very rough assemblage of footage (but) we felt like this is a beautiful film. This does feel like it should be on the big screen and we can put our talent toward asking people to come out. We took it on and then we went to Fatima, Portugal to show the movie to the shrine – probably the most nerve-wracking screen that both of us have ever done. They loved it. They immediately endorsed it. Then we also had the added experience of being there and really believing that Heaven touched Earth there. It’s an overpowering feeling and it’s a wonderful story. If we can put our talent to getting people more aware of that story and the messages which we believe are relevant to today, then this one’s going to be one of those home runs on our resume.

JWK: To be clear, this is actually a re-release.

JB: Right. It did really well the first time out (last August).

BB: Because of the pandemic, everything was so disrupted and upside down that it never really got a chance to be in a big, broad kind of multiplex release. It performed well on premium video on demand and streaming on Netflix but we felt like it’s important that people come together and experience a film like this in person – and also to really demonstrate the artistry (and) really see how it looks on a big screen. It’s just really impressive. The director Marco Pontecorvo is also a director of photography. It’s one of his things. He was one of the DPs on Game of Thrones. He’s got a big visual style so artistically it’s wonderful to experience it. Also we felt like as people start returning to “normal” and going back to church in person it would also resonate to feel that story with other people. It’s unusual to re-release a film (like this).

JB: I think we have to add how grateful we are to AMC, the movie theater chain that loved the movie and understood the power of the Catholic audience.

JWK: So, as Catholics, you see the artistic value of the movie – but it’s also kind of personal to you.

BB: Yes, it is. It’s both.

JB: I also think that it’s Mary who’s in charge of this release…To come up against a pandemic and lose the theaters (and then) premium video on demand enabled us to get the film to a lot of our audience who (are) older…(And now) suddenly to come back and have Disney move a movie called Black Widow out of May 7th (opening the date for Fatima just in time for) Mother’s Day weekend. Then (next Thursday, May13th) is not only the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima but also the Ascension. It’s just a really wonderful reason to go to the movies and celebrate all the mothers in your life.

And then we (have) a special (AMC Fan Fave) price of $5 a ticket. So, people should not have a lot of barriers to going out and enjoying it on the big screen and hear (Andrea) Bocelli sing that closing song. It’s really a lovely experience.

BB: One thing that AMC does too for that price is that you can also take your immediate friends or family, if you want, and just take the whole theater. They have private theater rentals along with the normal (way).

JB: For Fatima, if you rent your own theater, that price is going to be $99 (for) up to 20 people. This is in 350 theaters across the country. Right now, they’re playing our new trailer on 4100 screens. So, the message is getting out there.

JWK: You folks were also involved in the distribution of one of my favorite films, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I think may hold the record for the longest holding of the Number 2 slot at the box office. It was a great film.

JB: A great movie.

BB: That was so fun to work on because, particularly at the time, all the sort of gatekeepers and the other big companies just said “That’ll never work. An older audience doesn’t ever go out. It’s only teenagers that go to movies.” I was like “Well, if you don’t make any movies for them, of course they won’t go.”…It’s interesting. That’s one of the longest-playing theatrical releases ever. We opened in April and it played through the fall and Christmas.

JWK: They made a TV series out of it where they really mucked it up.

BB: I know. It was just a total miss.

JWK: Why didn’t they just do it like the movie – just keep the tone and cadence and make it into an hour-long comedy-drama about what happened after the film ended? Instead, they turned it into a not-very-good half-hour sitcom where, for no discernible reason, they even changed the names of the lead characters. It seems like it was designed to fail.

BB: Yeah, it was, unfortunately. We always hoped they would…

JB: …leave well enough alone.

BB: Or make a sequel after the film. They, of course, did years and years later but it just wasn’t the same at that point.

BB: And you know it’s interesting too that that it was really initially marketed through churches, as well – through Greek churches.

JWK: There was definitely a nice faith element there.

BB: Yeah.

JWK: Getting back to Fatima, it’s already had success via streaming. It ran on Netflix, right?

BB: Yes, it did. It’s on it now too.

JB: This is why I say Mary is in charge…This has never been done. The fact that AMC is willing try this is wonderful.

BB: It also helps people, I think, as the country opens up again and people get out. The theaters are open but there’s also a need for more films until everything gets back to normal. I feel also like we’re helping AMC get people used to going to the theaters again. That’s why there’s the Fan Fave price. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.

JWK: What do you hope people take from the film?

BB: I think what we hope they’ll take away, in addition to the experience and just enjoying the movie, is a message of hope that the story of Fatima and the film delivers…I think we need the hope and sort of inspiration to keep going. And also many places in the world still have a big struggle so I think the message is the hope that Mary brings is what we hope people will take away along with…peace.

JB: The message of peace.

BB: And also I think maybe, for some people that haven’t thought about it in a while – Catholics or non-Catholics – that it does kinda rekindle an interest in faith.

JB: Having had the opportunity to visit the shrine, meet all of the people working there and learn how they are making these messages relevant for this century, it’s amazing now with the pandemic how much it really resonates. So, we hope too that churches will start to have conversations with their parishioners or with their Bible groups or how ever they interact to talk about praying for peace.

JWK: What do you look for in projects that you take on for distribution? What attracts you?

BB: Unique storytellers and auteurs.

JB: Something that we can market – that people want to see.

BB: Also it’s trying to find movies that maybe don’t fit the sort of exact idea that the big studios have. Like I was talking about Greek Wedding, they all have certain models and, even though there are more options now, there are still places that films don’t fit but that doesn’t mean there’s not an audience. So, it’s also seeking out filmmakers that have a story to tell that the larger companies don’t feel fits with their metrics but the audiences could still be huge. So, that’s the challenge and the excitement of it – when you find something like that.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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