French Legion of Honour ceremony for Michael Barker and Tom Bernard

Sony Pictures Classics founders celebrated.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sony Pictures Classics founders Michael Barker and Tom Bernard - Chevalier of the Legion of Honor insignia at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Sony Pictures Classics founders Michael Barker and Tom Bernard - Chevalier of the Legion of Honor insignia at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, held a reception in honour of Sony Pictures Classics founders Michael Barker and Tom Bernard as they were presented with the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Mamadou Diouf, Leitner Family Professor of African Studies and History at Columbia University was also honoured.

French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Laurent Fabius:
French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Laurent Fabius: "I am delighted to welcome you tonight to celebrate three men, … who will receive the highest distinction of French government, the Légion d'honneur."

In a video tribute, stars from Isabelle Huppert to Michael Haneke, from Marion Cotillard to Gerard Depardieu, Woody Allen and Candice Bergen sent their congratulations. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Yvan Attal, Killer Films' Christine Vachon, Focus Features' James Schamus, Annette Insdorf, Rajendra Roy, Richard Peña and Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor to the French Embassy, were among those attending the celebration of the illustrious bond between Sony Pictures Classics and French Cinema.

Allen best captured the evening honoring the American film titans. "I always felt there was something Gallic about those two gentlemen. Michael for me always had a kind of resemblance slightly to Jean-Paul Sartre. And Tom looks very close to the spitting image of Toulouse-Lautrec… I have worked with them at Sony Classics for years. I can say there is a great French feeling to the philosophy of the company. It runs on the model of liberty, equality, fraternity and frugality. Good luck guys."

French Minister Laurent Fabius: I am delighted to welcome you tonight to celebrate three men, Professor Diouf, Michael Barker, Tom Bernard, who will receive the highest distinction of French government, the Légion d'honneur. From African studies to the septième art, your achievements are very diverse. But we owe you the same gratitude. These awards acknowledge your contributions to the French-American friendship.

French Legion of Honour ceremony - Laurent Fabius with Mamadou Diouf, Tom Bernard, Michael Barker and Antonin Baudry:
French Legion of Honour ceremony - Laurent Fabius with Mamadou Diouf, Tom Bernard, Michael Barker and Antonin Baudry: "These awards acknowledge your contributions to the French-American friendship."

Outside the movie business, you enjoy different activities. Tom Bernard, correct me if I'm wrong, you love to go fishing and you also are a hockey and golf player. And according to our intelligence service, your handicap is 14. Michael Barker, you are a great reader who adores Shakespeare. You studied acting and still go to the theatre in a religious way. But when it comes to filmmaking there is no difference at all. You are two of the longest reigning executives of the cinema but also close friends who by now have been working together for more than 30 years.

Starting from the two men's initial meeting over a "Secret Santa", we were given a brief overview of their careers in connection with French Cinema. They joined United Artists Classics together where their first acquisition was The Last Metro(1980) by François Truffaut. They also handled Diva (1981) by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Since these early days, they distributed the largest number of French films in America. In 1992 they co-founded Sony Pictures Classics and received more than 100 Oscar nominations.

LF: You drove A Prophet by Jacques Audiard to the Oscars and helped Amour by Michael Haneke, co-produced in France, to receive the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film. French cinema as an industry and as an art is very grateful to you both. Through our highest distinction we commend your commitment to forging, enriching and maintaining this trans-Atlantic particular cultural bond.

Tom Bernard, Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes and Michael Barker at MoMA for The Invisible Woman première
Tom Bernard, Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes and Michael Barker at MoMA for The Invisible Woman première Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In their acceptance speeches Tom Bernard gave us the numbers and Michael Barker a personal film memory on how it all began.

Tom Bernard: We were very surprised when we heard we were receiving the French Legion of Honour. I said to Michael, lets put a list together of all the French films we have brought to America in our career. It became very clear once we did it, why this happened. It was over 90 movies and we received 34 Academy nominations, 24 Golden Globe award nominations, countless critics' prizes.

He spoke about their collaborations with Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Catherine Deneuve and how Michael Barker saved the day with Eric Rohmer, who wanted to know why they were interested in his films. Michael Barker when I congratulated him at the end of the evening, told me that his speech was not planned. "I winged it," he told me with a great smile. He said people trusted them because they were cineasts and because they were relentless.

Legion of Honour ceremony French Embassy in New York attended by Charlotte Gainsbourg
Legion of Honour ceremony French Embassy in New York attended by Charlotte Gainsbourg Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Barker: The fact of the matter is, in an era where we have so few great statesmen, Laurent Fabius is one of the great Statesmen in the world and it is a privilege to have him bestow this honour. When I was listening to that speech, I was thinking very personally about my mother.

My mother, when I was 11 years old would take me to see foreign language films… She said, "when I was 14, I saw Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion and it changed my life… There was something about that movie - it was like I discovered humanity." What I realised when I was listening to the speech is Jean Renoir's humanity, and that humanity is really the gift of French cinema, that no other cinema in the world can rival.

Sony Pictures Classics has Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, Damien Chazelle' Whiplash screening in the Main Slate of the 52nd New York Film Festival. Robert Kenner's Merchants of Doubt and Gabe Polsky's Red Army in the Documentary section.

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice with Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart is up next for Sony Pictures Classics.

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