Focus Features founder and CEO James Schamus, is leaving the company, parent Universal announced this afternoon. Schamus will be replaced by FilmDistrict founder and CEO Peter Schlessel in a move that will see Focus Features broaden its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of so-called "specialty product," as well as increase the number of films the division releases.
Interpret Universal's written motivations however you wish, but it reads to me like the studio is no longer interested in its subsidiary being a strictly art house/foreign films label, with at least one goal being to produce and distribute more commercial, mainstream fare.
So why do we care at Shadow & Act?
Well, in addition to being home to a number of *smaller* black films released over the last decade (like The Caveman's Valentine, Something New, Talk to Me, and most recently, Pariah), Focus Features, under the now-exiting James Schamus' watch, launched a *little* initiative Shadow & Act and its readers have really come to appreciate, called the Focus Features Africa First program. Now in its 6th year, the initiative earmarks funds exclusively for emerging filmmakers of African descent (each receiving $10,000 in financing for pre-production, production, and/or post-production on their narrative short films made in continental Africa).
It was also under Schamus' reign that Andrew Dosunmu (who's sophomore feature, Mother Of George, is currently in theaters) was recently hired by Focus Features to direct the long-in-development Fela Kuti biopic.
In fact, Schamus was instrumental in giving the project a home at Focus, suggesting in a 2010 New York Times profile that it was something of a passion project for him, so much that he even co-wrote the screenplay with Nigerian author Chris Abani.
So the obvious question is, what will become of both the Africa First initiative, as well as the Fela Kuti project, with the man responsible for each of them, exiting the company he co-founded?
All the research I did on this, told me nothing. Although the news did break just this afternoon, so it might be to soon, and we may get the answer to that question some time later, once the dust settles.
The Africa First program is supervised by Executive Director and producer Kisha Cameron Dingle, whose company, Completion Films, has a first-look and consulting deal with Focus by the way (something else that may be in jeopardy with Schamus gone), so maybe she'll be able to comment on this sooner or later. I've already reached out to her directly, so if I get an on-the-record response, I'll share here.
The same goes for Andrew Dosunmu and his Fela project.
Peter Schlessel will transition to Focus Features, as he shores-up his own team, while Schamus' exit will see him concentrate on Ang Lee’s next film which is housed at Universal - an epic look at the boxing world from the 1960s through the 1970s, seen through the prism of its biggest rivalries and greatest fights, including the “Thrilla in Manila.”
By the way, the company Schlessel has been CEO of until today's news - FilmDistrict - counts Spike Lee's Oldboy adaptation as one of its upcoming releases. That film, as well as FilmDistrict's other titles, will now be absorbed into Universal's library.
The existing Focus Features New York offices will shut down, as the entire operation moves to Los Angeles, closer to "home."