When Patty Jenkins screened her serial-killer drama Monster for potential distributors last summer, she found herself in the middle of a Hollywood second-guessing game. ''They would say, 'Unsympathetic characters don't make money, blah, blah, blah,''' recalls the director. But then she met Newmarket Films president Bob Berney. ''Bob sat down and watched, tapped his foot to the music. He said, 'Oh, I like it! I could do it!' That was it. That's how complicated it is with Bob. He's intuitive and confident in his taste: If it moves him, and he likes it, other people will too.''
It's a refreshing approach that, combined with shrewdly executed word-of-mouth publicity campaigns, has earned Berney a Midas-touch reputation in indie-film distribution. During his two-year tenure at IFC Films, Berney drove the Mexican road-trip flick Y Tu Mama Tambien to $14 million (huge for a subtitled release), and transformed a little Hellenic nuptial comedy into the highest-grossing indie of all time with a big fat $241 million.
Now some 16 months into his Newmarket gig, Berney has scored back-to-back victories with New Zealand's feel-good, $21 million-grossing Whale Rider, and Jenkins' not-so-feel-good Monster, which has made $15 million and cracked the top 10. The films have also won Newmarket its first Oscar nominations, with Best Actress nods for Whale's Keisha Castle-Hughes and Monster's Charlize Theron. (Of course, Berney has had misses, too: Open Hearts and Lilja 4-Ever were box office disappointments in 2003, despite critical support.) And Newmarket is bound to stay in the spotlight, thanks to such controversial future releases as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ this month (see story, page 18), and next fall's The Woodsman, a Sundance acquisition already generating buzz for Kevin Bacon's performance as a reformed pedophile.
Daring choices, box office triumphs, Oscar nods: Is Newmarket the new Miramax? ''I don't think he's the new anything,'' quips Killer Films president Christine Vachon. ''He's just Bob Berney running a company very successfully.'' Adds IFC's Jonathan Sehring: ''Bob's not at all like Harvey [Weinstein]. I don't think I've ever seen Bob get angry. He's levelheaded, even-keeled. Bob's just one of the best in the business.''
Which, Berney hopes, will allow Newmarket to grow (possibly into production) but remain truly indie -- avoiding the fates of fellow specialty distributors Miramax (Disney-owned) and Focus (Universal-owned). ''Independent also means we don't want to work for anybody in a larger corporation,'' Berney laughs. ''I just hope we can keep acknowledging new directors and smaller films, and keep it manageable. In independent distribution, it's about having the guts to keep throwing the dice.''