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Universal Replaces Schamus with Schlessel to Expand Focus Features Brand

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 2, 2013 at 3:06PM

Universal is under new management. And another specialty division bites the dust. I may be overstating it, but safe to say, the old Focus Features--a high-class specialty division with an eye for awards worthy content--is no more. Longtime Focus CEO and co-founder James Schamus, a New Yorker of discernment who managed to work within a major studio's financial expectations for 12 years, is finally leaving the specialty division.
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James Schamus and Ang Lee
James Schamus and Ang Lee

Universal is under new management. And another specialty division bites the dust. I may be overstating it, but safe to say, the old Focus Features--a high-class specialty division with an eye for awards worthy content--is no more. Longtime Focus CEO and co-founder James Schamus, a New Yorker of discernment who managed to work within a major studio's financial expectations for 12 years, is finally leaving the studio. 

Peter Schlessel
Peter Schlessel

As of January 14, 2014 he will be replaced by Peter Schlessel, a one-time Sony executive who more recently has been running indie distributor FilmDistrict. He will report to Universal chairman Donna Langley, who has always been well-tuned to the Focus division, which has released many Working Title films as well as the pending "Fifty Shades of Grey," which is her baby. 

Universal wants Schlessel to bring his knowledge of distribution, marketing and foreign markets to "expand" the Focus brand. What that means is that he will add a number of wide-release genre films to Focus's annual output in order to increase its annual box office. The release states that Universal wants to "maximize its potential by including a greater variety of movies on Focus Features’ film slate." 

Right. Just what we all need.

Schamus and Schlessel are two very different execs. One is a Columbia professor and author who also writes screenplays--he will be leaving to work on yet another collaboration with his old friend Ang Lee, which he is producing with Lee and developing at Universal. The other is a bottom-line business-oriented exec with little concern for high-end content.  

Under Schamus, Focus has nurtured such Oscar-worthy films as the upcoming "Dallas Buyer's Club" (November 1) as well as "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Pianist," "Brokeback Mountain," "Atonement," "Milk," "Jane Eyre," "ParaNorman," and "Coraline," among many others. Among their recent duds are "Promised Land," "Hyde Park on Hudson," and "One Day."

Schlessel's recent output includes the "Insidious" series, "Looper," "Evil Dead," "Olympus Has Fallen," "Parker," "Dead Man Down," "Red Dawn," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Drive," and "The Rum Diary." Many FilmDistrict titles set for release after January 2014 will be absorbed into the new Focus Features.

Schlessel's mandate is 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.  In an effort to establish a closer relationship with Universal’s global distribution and marketing divisions, Focus Features will relocate its headquarters to Los Angeles.  In the coming weeks, Schlessel will be putting together the newly reconstituted Focus Features executive team which will be comprised of key leaders from within the ranks of both FilmDistrict and Focus." 

The question is which FilmDistrict and Focus execs will stay and which will go, and who will be willing to move to L.A? Schlessel was also uncomfortable with having Bob Berney running FilmDistrict distribution and marketing out of New York--that relationship proved short-lived. (Berney now runs his own company, Picturehouse, which just opened "Metallica: Through the Never.")

Upcoming FilmDistrict releases include "Oldboy," the Spike Lee directed re-interpretation of the highly-acclaimed South Korean suspense film (November 27), "That Awkward Moment," starring Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan (January 31, 2014), "Pompeii," starring Kit Harington (February 21, 2014, which will continue to be distributed by TriStar Pictures); and "Selfless" starring Ryan Reynolds (September 26, 2014). 

Schamus will concentrate on Lee’s next epic, which is set in the boxing world of the 1960s and 1970s, and includes its greatest fights such as the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali showdown known as the “Thrilla in Manila."

This article is related to: Focus Features, James Schamus, FilmDistrict, Film District, Universal/Focus Features, Universal, Universal Pictures


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Thompson on Hollywood

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.