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

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 2, 2013 at 3:52PM

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.
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Focus Features

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.

This article is related to: James Schamus, Focus Features