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Focus Goes On 10th Anniversary Buying Spree, from Bana Thriller to Sundance's 'For a Good Time Call'; Talk Digital Focus World

Features
by Anne Thompson
February 2, 2012 4:28 PM
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Van Sant and Damon on "Good Will Hunting" set
Film.Biz.Fans

As Focus Features ramps up for its 10th anniversary, chairman James Schamus and president Andew Karpen are on a buying tear. And with three Oscar nominations in hand for BAFTA front-runner "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which is scoring at the box office ($42 million worldwide), they're in high spirits. "It's kicking ass," says Schamus. "Remember, Gary Oldman is revered by his peers."

Focus continues to chase after their particular demo, described by Schamus as "smart demanding movies, disciplined with a lot of craft." The 2011 slate, led by "Hanna," "Jane Eyre," "The Debt," "One Day," and "Beginners," he adds, "beat our plan for the tenth year in a row. We made money, it was one of our best years." Focus releases from nine to ten films a year.

New Deals

While Focus went into the recent Sundance Film Festival with plenty of projects on their 2012 slate (see below), they did scoop up worldwide rights for some $2 million to one of the fest's most accessible titles, first-time director Jamie Travis's New York phone sex comedy "For a Good Time, Call..." Last year's low-ball Sundance pick-up, Dee Rees's lesbian coming-of-age drama "Pariah," didn't exactly set box office records in limited release (99% on the Tomatometer) or hit the Oscar jackpot, the way "The Kids Are All Right" did the year before. But Schamus says he'd do it again. "She's a great new director," he says. "She's writing the screenplay for her next film."

Focus just nabbed worldwide rights to Working Title's untitled Euro-thriller, set to start production in April in the U.K., about two ex-lovers (Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall) who are put under duress when they join the same defense team at a terrorism trial. The film is written by Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Eastern Promises"), directed by Ireland's John Crowley ("Intermission") and produced by Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") and Chris Clark ("The Guard"). Focus International will start foreign sales at Cannes in May. The suspenser is not only "a nail-biting thriller, but an emotional rollercoaster as well," says Schamus, "one that speaks to the heart of the human condition in our time.”

Focus is also in final talks with Participant on teaming up for the first time for Gus Van Sant's $15-million "Promised Land," to star Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Once set as Damon's directorial debut (before schedule issues intervened; he then turned to his "Good Will Hunting" director), the film was first written by Dave Eggers before Damon and Krasinski (who paid Eggers to get the corporate greed story started) polished it off. It follows two rival executives, one of whom (Damon) arrives in a small town and begins to question his life. Production is set for April.

Focus World: New Digital Domain

Now that Comcast owns Focus parent NBC Universal, Schamus and Karpen have moved full steam ahead with their four-years-in-the-making expansion into the digital domain, Focus World, and quietly scoped out lower-profile Sundance films to put through their cable partners via VOD, plus other environments. "In the next year we will build this business," says Schamus. "We have created the best-in-class digitial distribution team, who will push films across all platforms."

As DVD sales decline, Schamus and Karpen are having a blast exploring the entrepreneurial opportunities in this new space. "We're figuring out how to relate cost structures, overhead, production and marketing," says Schamus, "as replacement value for lost revenue." They're working on integrating their deep Focus library into their digital strategy via recommendation and thematic titles. For exaple, they'll use a fresh new flagship movie like "Hanna" or "The Debt" to push related established titles from their library bench, such as thrillers "The Constant Gardner" or "Swimming Pool." "We have massive online traffic," boasts Schamus, who wants to add fresh featurettes and content to push titles as well. "Upscale viewers are particularly active. Titles feed into each other. There's growth there."

Focus's strategy is also about building a brand identity going forward via their Focus Features page at the iTunes store, for example. While big bucks are not yet on the horizon, Focus World has already released seven profitable films in 2011, says Karpen, from Tribeca doc "Bombay Beach" and Russian film "Black Lightning" to "Resurrect Dead" and Brazilian flicks "Adrift" and "The VIPs," which will be released on DVD in 2012. "Every film performed."

Focus World already has at least six pictures lined up for this year, starting in January with James Franco's LA Film Fest Hart Crane biopic "Broken Tower," shot in black-and-white, which was promoted on iTunes home page (which also touted Focus biopics "Milk" and "The Motorcycle Diaries"). They are set to release one title a month after that, including Iceland director Gaukur Úlfarsson’s hilarious Tribeca documentary "Gnarr" and Liza Johnson’s Cannes Director's Fortnight drama "Return," starring Michael Shannon and John Slattery. They're keen to release from 12- 15 VOD titles a year.

Focus Features 2012 Theatrical Slate

-Paul Weitz's father-son drama "Being Flynn" (selected cities March 2) is adapted from Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir "Another Bulls—t Night in Suck City." Paul Dano ("Little Miss Sunshine," "There Will Be Blood") plays writer Flynn, who misses his late mother, Jody (Julianne Moore) and reaches out to his author father (Robert De Niro) after not seeing him for 18 years.
 
-Steve Carell and Keira Knightley star in the sci-fi comedy "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," (wide release April 20) which marks the feature directorial debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria ("Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist"). What will we do when the last days are at hand?
 
-Wes Anderson's latest, "Moonrise Kingdom" (selected cities May 25) is set on an island off the coast of New England in the 1960s, where a young boy and girl (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) fall in love and decide to run away, instigating a townwide search. Bruce Willis  is the town sheriff; Edward Norton is a camp leader; and Bill Murray and  Frances McDormand play the young girl’s parents. Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman co-star.
 
The rest of the Focus 2012 slate is rounded out with Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s stop-motion comedy thriller "ParaNorman," the new 3D feature from animation company LAIKA (national August 17); Roger Michell's period "Hyde Park on Hudson," starring Academy Award nominees Bill Murray and Laura Linney; and for next Oscar season, Joe Wright’s epic romance "Anna Karenina," adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel by Tom Stoppard and starring Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Johnson.

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