Screen’s US editor Jeremy Kay analyses what the restructure of Focus Features could mean for specialty films.
Ever since cable giant Comcast got its foot in the door at NBC Universal back in 2011, it was only going to be a matter of time before the company’s film business came under close inspection. Steve Burke began that process about a year ago, insiders say, and in the past month the NBC Universal CEO’s scrutiny has come home to roost.
In September, Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson was booted out as Jeff Shell was appointed chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. As a result, Donna Langley become sole chairman of Universal with oversight of Focus Features.
Last week it was the turn of Focus to be in the headlines as it transpired that the company was to merge with FilmDistrict, its New York offices shuttered and headquarters relocated to Los Angeles. Wham. Out goes co-founder and CEO James Schamus and in comes FilmDistrict chief Peter Schlessel as new CEO.
Many fear this to be the latest nail in the coffin of the specialty sector. Perhaps a mausoleum would be more appropriate. Since 2008 the industry has witnessed the demise of Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse (newly reconstituted but on early evidence quite different from its predecessor), New Line, Paramount Vantage and THINKFilm.
Nobody is talking on the record and until the facts are in it is too soon to mourn the passage of another supplier of specialty film. However what seems certain is that Focus in its current iteration is not long for this world. The fate hangs in the balance for Focus’ London office and sister company Focus Features International, a world-class sales operation that injects a steady stream of financially viable, classy, mature product into an independent arena that often screams out for it.
Schamus, the avuncular, bow-tied academic and producer nominated for three Oscars including one for co-adapting the screenplay of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, will depart on January 1, 2014. His like will probably never be seen at the helm of a studio again. Inevitably a number of his highly paid executives will be packing their bags too, as will several of Schlessel’s senior brass from FilmDistrict and rank and file staffers from both companies.
The aim will be to release up to 10 films a year as Focus 2.0 “broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product”, to use language culled from a Universal press release.
Consider also these words from Burke while addressing investors at September’s Bank Of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications And Entertainment Conference. His film operation, he said, would rely “very heavily on franchises and very heavily on animated films.”
If that suggests there will be greater investment in the likes of Fifty Shades Of Grey and fewer gambles along the lines of Lost In Translation, Brokeback Mountain and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, then it is also true that under the stewardship of Schlessel there will be a greater commercial savviness.
The incoming CEO is an urbane, talented and highly regarded executive with vast experience. He was a high flyer across the Sony fold and has delivered success at FilmDistrict with the likes of current hit Insidious: Chapter 2 and its predecessor as well as Looper and Drive, a daring proposition by anyone’s standards.
Aside from the distribution profile, will there be a willingness at Focus 2.0 to embrace awards contenders? Will the new regime carry the torch like it did in the times under Schamus and the halcyon years under Schamus and his Focus co-founder and former Good Machine partner David Linde, when Focus earned 53 Oscar nominations and won 11 statuettes?
There is a certain essence to a Focus awards contender that is impossible to replicate. This year, for example, the company’s great hope is Dallas Buyers Club. Without Focus in the mix, the only companies of similar stature left standing would be Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and The Weinstein Company.
For those in the business who truly love film, the disconnect between commerce and art has always been hard to swallow. The tide of corporate consolidation that has swept through Hollywood in the wake of the financial collapse has made this even harder to accept.
Yet for all its disastrous PR credentials, streamlining makes perfect sense in a business that aspires to be profitable and is necessary if the industry is to stay afloat. One can only hope those left in positions of power will build a legacy that operates within a smart framework and champions bold, original ideas that soar as high as they must to make film lovers proud.