With a big management shakeup, Focus Features—the specialty distributor that brought audiences films like Brokeback Mountain and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—is getting a more mainstream makeover, and that's sad news for film lovers.
Trade publications reported yesterday that the beloved CEO of Focus, James Schamus (pictured at right with Rosamund Pike), was being replaced by Peter Schessel of FilmDistrict, the company that has produced low-to-middlebrow fare in recent years like Olympus Has Fallen and The Rum Diary. The change means, as Pamela McClintock wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, that Focus will undergo a "personality change." Under Schamus Focus focused mainly on art house films, but now Universal, which owns the distributor, wants to "expand Focus' footprint," meaning it won't just focus on prestige fare.
This shift has seemed sadly inevitable for a while. As Kristopher Tapley wrote at HitFix, Focus was of a dying breed. "It hurts, but it seems the rule is you don't get to crank out that kind of an art house run and live too long to tell the tale," Tapley explained. "Indie/dependent divisions have been shuttering left and right for years. We lost Paramount Vantage. We lost Warner Independent."
But Schamus was something special. As Carlo Rotella pointed out in a 2010 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Schamus occupied a strange place in the industry. He was not only a businessman, but also a scholar, occupying a professorship at Columbia. "There really isn’t anyone else like Schamus," Rotella wrote. "There’s no precedent for a real academic — he’s a professor of professional practice in Columbia’s School of the Arts, a teacher and scholar who has served on the editorial board of Cinema Journal — to have a first-rate career as a writer, a producer and an executive in the film industry." Schamus knew how to honor the craft in his role as a CEO too, combining a mix of economic savvy and appreciation for filmmaking. "By controlling budgets and preselling international distribution rights to finance productions, Schamus can position artists to make the movies they really want to make, as long as they want to make movies that don’t cost too much and that he can sell," Rotella explained.
That's not to say Focus Features' run was entirely successful. Last year its awards-bait films like Anna Karenina, Hyde Park on Hudson, and Promised Land didn't get much love from critics and were mostly ignored come Oscar time. Promised Land bombed at the box office, as did this year's more mainstream Tina Fey/Paul Rudd romantic comedy Admission. (At least last year they had a huge success in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.) It was another mixed bag in 2011, with the critical and box office flop One Day offsetting the minor success of the Oscar-winning fan favorite Beginners. This year, the company is hoping for success with Matthew McConaughey's AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, but that's pretty much all they've got in terms of awards hope, unless the underrated The Place Beyond the Pines gets some sort of miraculous second wind.
And it's not that Schessel's FilmDistrict, in its short life, hasn't put out impressive films with some art house cred. There's Drive, Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed, and In the Land of Blood and Honey. Spike Lee's Oldboy remake is opening in November. It's just that Schessel has mixed those releases with junky horror and action titles like Olympus Has Fallen, Lockout, and the Insidious series. All things considered, Tapley doesn't think the change is that bad, writing that "a mixture of specialty and wide releases is a smart approach and, at the end of the day, it might provide an even better opportunity for specialty product to find its way at Focus as some of the other product (in theory) proves more profitable."
Even so, the change stings a bit when you realize what Focus Features used to be.