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New Focus. Not the Same as Old Focus.

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 2, 2014 at 1:11PM

Brands and labels mean a lot in Hollywood. It's about building up the perception of value. How has MGM stayed in business all these years? So when a venerated label throws away its value it makes me crazy.
Laurence Fishburne in 'The Signal'
Laurence Fishburne in 'The Signal'

Brands and labels mean a lot in Hollywood. It's about building up the perception of value. How has MGM stayed in business all these years? So when a venerated label throws away its value it makes me crazy.

The indie specialty world has lost many quality labels over the years now: United Artists, Paramount Classics and Vantage, Warner Independent, Fine Line Features, Cinecon and Miramax among many more. Now we can count Focus Features.

The Universal distribution label is still in business as they are reinvented by a new management, led by Peter Schlessel, who is leaning on more "commercial" genre fare than did James Schamus's Focus. (Think Oscar contenders like "Milk," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Anna Karenina," "Atonement," "Dallas Buyers Club.") The new slate of Focus films depresses me: they look the same as everything else. I used to look forward to their films because they represented a quality sensibility--they won some and lost some, sure, but they were aiming high.

Check out this screening invite from this week:


CAST: Brenton Thwaites (THE GIVER), Olivia Cooke (THE QUIET ONES, “Bates Motel”), Beau Knapp (SUPER 8), Lin Shaye (INSIDIOUS) and Laurence Fishburne (THE MATRIX, “Hannibal”)

DIRECTOR: William Eubank (LOVE)

WRITERS: William Eubank (LOVE) & Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio

PRODUCERS: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Tyler Davidson

Synopsis: Three college students on a road trip across the Southwest experience a detour: the tracking of a computer genius who has already hacked into MIT and exposed security faults. The trio find themselves drawn to an isolated area. Suddenly everything goes dark. When one of the students, Nic (Brenton Thwaites of The Giver and Maleficent), regains consciousness, he is in a waking nightmare…

So far the Sundance 2014 reviews are not ecstatic:

The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore gives it a 60 on Metacritic: 
"The Bottom Line": Beautifully executed, not-quite-satisfying sci-fi head-scratcher."
Variety's Geoff Berkshire gives it a 50 on Metacritic and a "rotten" on the Tomatometer. 

"Exceedingly stylish and ultimately quite silly, The Signal is a sci-fi head trip better appreciated for the journey than the destination."

Don't get me wrong: the trailer for this PG-13 sci-fi thriller looks slick, if awfully familiar. The flick could make money, I suppose. But Focus did not make money on "Bad Words," which was DOA despite upbeat reviews. Will Schlessel do better with Sundance pickup from Zach Braff, "Wish I Was Here," which is now at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes? He let go of a lot of distribution expertise when he dumped the New York office. Did he throw the baby out with the bathwater? 

Here's another email entry from this week from Focus:

Celebrate opening day with two clips & quiz from Focus World's WALK OF SHAME! The new comedy starring Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Gillian Jacobs & Sarah Wright opens in select theaters & VOD today! And don't miss Elizabeth tonight at 7pm EST for her exclusive liveTwitter chat! Then make sure to download the film on VOD at 8pm EST to continue the Twitter fun. While you're waiting, watch the new clips and take the Douche Test for yourself below!

The latest announcement: Focus is acquiring "London Has Fallen," starring Gerard Butler, a sequel to "Olympus Has Fallen."

Focus will still release some titles from Universal's UK partner Working Title, such as James Marsh's "Theory of Everything," starring Eddie Redmayne as young scientist Stephen Hawking, due in November, I look forward to that. Here's another question: will Universal still want this label to release high-profile exotic "50 Shades of Grey" in 2015? 

This article is related to: Universal/Focus Features, Focus Features

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.