With James Schamus Out, What Does The Future Hold For Focus Features?

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by Kevin Jagernauth
October 2, 2013 3:52 PM
9 Comments
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Since 2001, James Schamus has been the very public and very successful CEO of Focus Features, the arthouse arm of Universal Pictures. Under his tenure, filmmakers like Ang Lee, the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, George Clooney, Cary Fukunaga, Rian Johnson, David Cronenberg, Roman Polanski and more have all seen their movies released by Focus, who have carved out a niche for themselves as an indie willing to take on smart, adult fare and have often proven an ability to make them financially successful. The brand, more often than not, is associated with quality. But a changing of the guard is happening that could see a change in how they operate.

Today, it was announced that as of January 14, 2014, Peter SchlesselFilmDistrict founder and CEO, will head up Focus Features. But perhaps most crucially, FilmDistrict is essentially being absorbed by Focus, with all releases by the studio to fall under the Focus banner. And far from being just a change in leadership, Focus is physically moving too, with its longtime offices in New York City and a staff of over 100, being relocated to Los Angeles. So what's the game plan?

According to the official press release: "Schlessel will be seeking to broaden the types of films that Focus distributes and increase the number of films the division releases to as many as ten films per year.  The slate will be populated by a combination of projects developed and produced internally at Focus, as well as films acquired during various stages of development and production." Or to borrow a couple more word from the release: "expand and diversify."

So what does this really mean? Should we "Kiss the old Focus good-bye," as Thompson On Hollywood suggets? Well, we wouldn't go that far. Focus has long been Universal's home for mid-budgeted, non-blockbustery adult fare, and this shift to more mainstream appealing titles isn't exactly new. One could argue films like "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World" and "The World's End" were just those kind of things (which could've easily been released by FilmDistrict), and it's not a surprise that Universal is shifting their erotica drama "Fifty Shades Of Gray" to their specialty label.

That being said, it could mean that more potentially challenging or artier movies might have to fight a bit harder for a place at the table, and that genre fare (FilmDistrict in the past year brought efforts like "Parker," "Olympus Has Fallen" and the hugely successful "Insidious" franchise to the table) might find more of a foothold. A change at the top always means a shift in direction, but just how drastic it will be remains to be seen, though we wouldn't say the sky is falling just yet.

We live in an era where young companies like CBS Films are tackling the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," and something as seemingly major studio no-brainer as "Foxcatcher" is a Sony Pictures Classics release. Studios are increasingly moving toward big, big blockbusters and franchises, leaving even awards season fare to their smaller partners. So this shift could just mean a bulked up Focus that handles both the artier end-of-year fare along with the kinds of middle budget/sized movies Universal used to release in the past, but just isn't part of their m.o. anymore. But we won't really know until Schlessel starts making his first moves.

Until then, do you have thoughts on this? Let us know your thoughts on Focus below.

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9 Comments

  • JD | October 9, 2013 12:30 AMReply

    It doesn't take a tactical genius to figure that Focus are attempting to become a more commercial outfit under Schlessel. More importantly, Donna Langley fancies herself as an exec with more 'high-brow' tastes and will be an integral part of overseeing the transition and future acquisitions. Donna will try to keep Focus's indie/arthouse rep going whilst Schlessel attempts to increase profit margins.

    The reality is for Universal, with declining audiences and ticket sales, Focus isn't coming up with the goods box office wise. They will consider a film like The Place Beyond the Pines a disappointment after paying 3 million + significant P&A costs @ Toronto it only made 21 million domestically and 14 internationally with a cast starring Gosling and Cooper.

    Its a shame because Focus was one of the best run indie shingles going around and unfortunately they've found themselves in the middle of a Universal shake-up where low profit margins and slight underperformers will put you out of the job.

  • Daryl Hannah | October 8, 2013 5:07 PMReply

    KJ really wants to see Foxcatcher for some reason

  • Newly unemployed | October 3, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    Just to clarify, the NYC staff was let go not relocated, big difference.

  • Bob the Gambler | October 9, 2013 6:58 PM

    Was 100% of the staff terminated? No one was moved out West? I'm very sorry to hear it.

  • D | October 3, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    How about getting the sequel to Eastern Promise made seen as James Schamus was the reason it didn't go ahead.

  • anonymouse | October 3, 2013 12:34 AMReply

    Kevin. You are naive. And should do you homework.

  • Jill Kennedy | October 2, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    James Schamus is already getting job offers - he'll be fine...

    http://mankabros.com/blogs/chairman/2013/10/02/manka-bros-would-like-to-offer-james-schamus-a-job/

  • jonathan | October 2, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    Not sure the Laika films they put out fall under the adult fare. Hope they still support them.

  • j | October 3, 2013 10:57 AM

    Focus operate as a distributor for hire for Laika (they don't shoulder the financial risk). They are paid to support them, so I'm sure they'll keep releasing their movies.

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