Mike Fleming

Bob Berney has finally landed. He’s the new president of Theatrical Distribution for FilmDistrict, an upstart acquisition, distribution, production and financing company launched by GK Films partners Graham King and Tim Headington, and spearheaded by GK Films president Peter Schlessel.

Since this has been months in the making, Berney’s destination isn’t surprising, but his mandate certainly is. The company will compete against the likes of Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate and CBS Films for moderately budgeted projects that have wide-release breakout potential. FilmDistrict will generate 4 to 8 pictures per year when it gets going. Since Berney’s background is specialty fare, the expectation was that he would put GK Films into that space.

FilmDistrict will target films that have the potential to play on between 1500 and 2000 screens. A good example is a GK-financed effort that might be one of FilmDistrict’s early projects: London Boulevard, the directorial debut of The Departed screenwriter William Monahan that stars Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell.

Given Schlessel’s long background at Sony Pictures Entertainment, it isn’t surprising that FilmDistrict will have a cozy relationship with SPE in its early stages, with a number of the releases expected to go through the studio’s TriStar or Triumph labels. GK Films separately has two distribution slots per year through SPE’s Columbia Pictures banner for its larger-budget fare. The GK-financed Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie-starrer The Tourist and the Martin Scorsese 3D pic Hugo Cabret will fill Sony slots, as will the GK-financed movie about iconic rock singer Freddie Mercury that Peter Morgan is writing as a star vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen to shoot next year. FilmDistrict can use Sony’s DVD output services on certain projects, but it will seek its own ancillary TV deals with the goal to grow into a free-standing distribution and production company, with Berney distributing and marketing. Berney will report to Schlessel, who in addition to his GK Films job, will be FilmDistrict’s CEO.

Per King, Schlessel and Berney, the main thing FilmDistrict brings to the table is: the financial resources to fund budgets, guarantee distribution and make P&A commitments that should make them attractive to filmmakers and financiers who’ve found such areas a slippery slope for films that fall between specialty fare and studio blockbusters. The FilmDistrict plan will be to find pictures with breakout potential, and then be opportunistic about when to release them. The trio said they will make acquisitions quickly (the inability to do that on films like The Kids Are All Right is something that was rumored to have contributed to  Berney’s decision to leave his last gig, Apparition).

Schlessel and Berney have complementary skill sets. While president of Worldwide Affairs at Sony, Schlessel spearheaded the acquisition of such sleepers as District 9 and the Michael Jackson docu This is It! Berney has a strong track record for riding in winners at past companies, though his own career track was interrupted when Warner Bros shuttered Picturehouse (Berney begged the studio to let him distribute Slumdog Millionaire, but the studio instead let the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner go to Fox Searchlight). Berney resurfaced as the head of the Bill Pohlad-financed Apparition, but exited abruptly on the eve of the last Cannes Film Festival. Berney declined to comment on why he left Apparition. Since his exit, Pohlad has cleaned house and placed the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree of Life with Fox Searchlight to be released next year.

“The emphasis is broader release films, with no defined genre,” Berney told Deadline. “Exhibitors want these films, studios are making fewer of them, and mini-majors aren’t doing that many. The target is anything we feel we can put out in the marketplace in a big way and make money.” From the past films Berney has distributed, he mentioned Monster, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Pan’s Labryrinth and The Passion of the Christ as pictures that would fit the FilmDistrict game plan.

King said that he and GK Films partner Tim Headington have eyed this space as a logical expansion beyond GK’s star-studded slates with bigger budgets.

“Tim and I look at this as only the start as we hope to grow this company into a much bigger business,” King said. “We observed the decline of companies and the way the business changed, and as much as GK has thrived with our relationships with artists like Marty Scorsese,  Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, we feel we have gotten the business side equivalent having Peter move from Sony and now Bob. I’d like to make 4 to 6 pictures per year on all levels, predicated on finding the right material. But getting the right team was most the most important way to start.”

Schlessel said while he and Berney looked at many of the films at the Toronto Film Festival last week, they didn’t see any that fit the game plan. The exception could be the James Wan-directed Insidious, which was acquired by the Sony Pictures World Wide Acquisitions Group chief Steve Bersch. No decision has been made on what to do with that film yet, but FilmDistrict will provide consulting services to Bersch’s group and it’s their intention to team on certain acquisitions. Schlessel said that he is confident the new venture will fill a needed niche for film suppliers.

“Being able to finance and put up P&A advances touches people in a profound way because it will help them get their movies made and released,” Schlessel said. “This is rare, a company that can produce, green light, arrange the P&A and distribution on the other end.”