It is a matter of pride for James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features, the specialised division of Universal Pictures, that he never misses a class at Columbia University, where he teaches film courses full-time in the autumn.
Schamus paints a comic picture of himself this month, rushing back and forth from the Toronto Festival - where Focus premiered such movies as Eastern Promises, Lust, Caution, Reservation Road and Atonement - to Columbia in a desperate bid to get to his classes in time. "I am going to miss one of our film screenings there (in Toronto) which really bums me out, but I can't cancel my first class. I am pretty rigorous about that. I make my classes. I have often raced from the airport, red-eyed with my baggage, and rolled up right at the beginning of class in the morning. It is hell-raising."
Earlier this autumn, Schamus finally completed Gertrud: The Moving Word, his book on the legendary Danish director, Carl Dreyer. "It's going to be a worldwide commercial blockbuster. At least 30 people are going to buy the book, maybe even 40," he jokes of this scholarly tome, which is being published by the University of Washington Press.
Not many other studio bosses have double lives as academics. Not many other studio bosses are also highly acclaimed screenwriters. Schamus has now worked on 10 features with Ang Lee - the latest, Lust, Caution, premiered in Venice and won the Golden Lion - and is busy on another, an adaptation of French play and film, A Little Game Without Consequence.
Ask him how he balances his multiple activities and he replies: "I tend to put most of my time into the people I work with. A lot of my efforts go into them. I have really found that is the essence of it - making sure there is an incredibly open information architecture and a real collegiality to the culture of the company and there are not a lot of pockets. That means it is very easy for me to plug into the big picture all the time."
Schamus may have a relentless work ethic ("My name is James and I am a work addict," he quips) but he tells his colleagues that if they are having dinner with their family or watching a soccer game, he won't complain if they turn off their Blackberries. "I'll leave a message. If you get back to me two hours later, that's fine. What I want is that when people work with Focus, they have a sense of perspective but they are still as professional as they can be ... people with a little bit of Zen tend to get the job done just as well as people who are out of their minds."
Focus Features prides itself on being film-maker-friendly. The evidence for this, Schamus suggests, is that the company has never released a director's cut DVD - because it hasn't had to. "Every movie we release is the director's cut."
With its haul of awards, not least the three Oscars for Brokeback Mountain last year, and the healthy box-office grosses for its films, the Focus approach is clearly working. Schamus adds that the company "isn't shy about opinions. It's not like we say here's a cheque, go make your movie and throw it over a wall when you are done. We will share opinions but at the end of the day, with every single movie released, that director can stand there and say absolutely this is my movie, this is what I wanted to make."
The business of innovation
Helping directors realise their visions is all very well. Schamus also needs to be a hard-headed businessman. He was "the cheerleader" behind the recent $200 million slate-financing deal Focus Features struck with Dresdner Kleinwort - a deal he believes would be very hard to strike now. "It was a very innovative and a very good deal. We just have a couple of years where we can roll through and do what we do," he says. "And now, with the contraction of the credit markets, none of these deals are going to get done."
Focus has plenty on the horizon. The Coen Brothers just started shooting on Burn After Reading, the first of two Coen projects on which Focus is partnering with Working Title. "It's like a dream. We started watching the dailies - and, of course, they are incredible. The other thing is that they finish their days early. When you have people who are that creative and original, you tend to assume that for them to be that way, there has got to be chaos. But (the Coens) are incredibly organised. It's like dealing with an army of artists."
Meanwhile, cha cha cha, the company launched by Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro in partnership with Universal Pictures and Focus Features International is in production on its first film Rudo Y Cursi.
Focus also keeps strong links in the UK. It is readying such British projects as In Bruges and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and has close links with many leading British producers, from Simon Channing-Williams to Graham Broadbent, David Thompson and Paul Webster.
And no, Schamus says, he does not have a prophetic ability to predict what will succeed or fail. "I can say truly honestly, even as the head of a movie studio, that all I can do is invest and create the conditions under which a film will break. The only reason we are making these movies is that they are not like other movies that succeed," he reflects. "We have just been so lucky that occasionally we make them that way, people latch on and they get it and it takes off. That pays for the rest of everything and we send cheques back to the mother ship, maybe get a pat on the back and we keep going. It is all about making the next one. You have to be successful enough so that you can get the next one going - that is all I care about."