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Schlessel Reshapes Focus Features: Loses Karpen and Foley, Keeps Brody and Bowles (ANALYSIS)

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by Anne Thompson
October 15, 2013 5:22 PM
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Peter Schlessel

The new CEO of Focus Features, Peter Schlessel, has wasted no time reconfiguring two distributors, FilmDistrict (41 staffers) and Focus (104 staffers), into one. By insisting on shutting down the Focus New York branch, he lost several valuable executives including Focus COO Andrew Karpen, who was asked to stay on. Schlessel aims to broaden Focus by expanding its film slate to include a greater number of both specialty and wide-release genre fare. He's putting in charge of the company his key FilmDistrict execs, but leaving Focus production president Jeb Brody--who happens to have a key role in "Fifty Shades of Grey," in charge of that function. 

EL James

Of the studio specialty divisions, only Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus are left, but its future as a specialty unit are in grave doubt. Paramount hangs on to the Vantage label but it's managed by the studio. Warner Bros. closed Warner Independent and Picturehouse, which has been taken over by Bob Berney as a much smaller indie. MGM's United Artists label is also gone. Closing the New York Focus office leaves only four major indie distributors based there: SPC, Weinstein Co., IFC and Magnolia. 

Here are the changes: 

FilmDistrict COO Adrian Alperovich will take over the role of Focus Features’ new Chief Operating Officer now held by Karpen, who opted to stay in New York with his family. He will remain in his current role to help with the transition. “After giving this opportunity much consideration, I’ve decided that this is simply not the right time for me to relocate my family to Los Angeles,” said Karpen. “I’m incredibly proud of all that we’ve accomplished at Focus, and know that the new company will thrive under Peter’s leadership.”

FilmDistrict president of marketing Christine Birch, who has studio experience at DreamWorks, will take over Focus marketing from David Brooks, who will also help with the transition. Staying on and reporting to Birch is LA-based Adriene Bowles, the current Focus President of Publicity and Executive Vice President of Marketing. FilmDistrict’s former Senior Vice President of Publicity, Elissa Greer, will segue into a new role as a non-exclusive independent contractor, working closely with Bowles through 2014.

FilmDistrict’s Jim Orr, who has studio experience at MGM and Paramount, will take over Jack Foley's Focus role as Distribution President; Foley will remain through the transition but will not be joining the new company permanently. This is a serious loss for Focus, as New York-based Foley and lieutenant Linda DiTrinco really know how to handle a wide range of specialty fare. Orr is unlikely, given his experience, to have such a deft touch.

Focus’ President of Production, Jeb Brody, will retain his current title and responsibilities, working closely to shape the Focus slate with FilmDistrict’s Lia Buman, now President of Acquisitions at Focus Features.  

This group will be charged with releasing awards candidate "Dallas Buyers Club," starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto beginning on November 1 in platform release in New York and Los Angeles. Focus recently landed worldwide distribution rights at Toronto to Jason Bateman comedy "Bad Words," directed by and starring Bateman.

Upcoming FilmDistrict releases that are slated to open prior to December 31, 2013 will be released by FilmDistrict, including Spike Lee's "Oldboy" (November 27); "Pompeii," starring Kit Harington, will go out on February 21, 2014 via partner TriStar Pictures. 2014 FilmDistrict releases that will now go out under the Focus Features banner include "That Awkward Moment" starring Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan (January 31, 2014) and "Selfless" starring Ryan Reynolds (September 26, 2014). 

This is unfortunate. It could have gone another way. A few years back, NBCUniversal received several offers for the company in the $300,000,000 range from MRC and Relativity among others. At the time, Comcast didn't want to sell any assets so soon after purchasing NBCUniversal. Nevertheless, as the economy has improved, more inquiries were made to the NBCUniversal brass about selling the company. Now it seems that some 80 people may lose their jobs. Under outgoing chief James Schamus Focus Features never lost money and was modestly successful every year. Why not sell it, as the studio did Rogue? The answer is Focus International made money, and Universal wanted to hang on to the library. Also, Universal's solo chairman Donna Langley knows that she needs a specialty arm to handle not ongoing smaller films from UK's Working Title, but a very significant movie in her upcoming quiver: "Fifty Shades of Grey." that was how she got the movie: by promising E.L. James that her baby--which is undergoing some casting issues at the moment--would be handled like a specialty release. 

What is so dismaying, whenever this happens, is that it takes years to build a well-functioning distribution machine--and the experienced people who make it sing-- and only seconds to dismantle it.

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