Film and international units merge

Underlining the need for specialty units to think globally, Focus Features will create a new entity under its umbrella: Focus Features Intl., which will now include Universal’s international production operation.

Focus Features CEO James Schamus will oversee both as he continues to operate its domestic production and distribution arm.

And the company will have stronger relationships with the burgeoning filmmakers who have been working with Universal Pictures’ international production prexy Christian Grass, who adds a title as co-chief exec of FFI.

Grass and his production group have forged deals with filmmakers around the globe, mandating local-language production. But with the new deal, these filmmakers will have the opportunity to work with Focus’ foreign sales and distribution outfit to show their films in other territories — including, possibly, North America.

Focus’s 2008 “In Bruges” points up what some shuttered specialty divisions elsewhere learned the hard way: You can’t survive on domestic grosses. “In Bruges” earned $8 million domestically but $25 million overseas.

Schamus and Grass announced the merger Wednesday just as their acquisition teams were headed off to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

“This global company gives filmmakers one-stop shopping with a more global focus,” Schamus said. “There will be no layoffs. All hands are on deck in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and London. We’re all pulling together, with two substantial and healthy P&Ls.”

Under the new structure, Schamus continues as CEO of Focus while Grass becomes co-CEO of Focus Features Intl.

Focus prexy Andrew Karpen will also become prexy of FFI, and Alison Thompson will remain as Focus’ international sales and distribution prexy.

Focus production chief John Lyons continues to report to Schamus. Clare Wise, a U senior veep who targets production and acquisitions in all territories outside North America and the U.K., will continue to report to Grass.

Combined 2008 grosses for the two companies topped $350 million worldwide. U’s move comes on the heels of the sale of Focus’ genre pic label, Rogue Pictures, to Relativity Media for $150 million (Daily Variety, Jan. 5).

Grass has been producing Universal films outside the U.S. since October 2007. He and Schamus have worked together on several projects, including Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Spanish-language thriller “Sin nombre,” which will launch in the dramatic competition at Sundance as the only film from a studio.

“We were already working closely together so we felt we might as well be partners,” Grass said. “International production has become this truly global business. It’s about identifying opportunity where it exists. We need to understand local markets and bring an international perspective to a worldwide business.”

Carlos Cuaron’s Mexican hit “Rudo y Cursi,” the first project from Cha Cha Cha, a company backed by Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is also debuting at Sundance.

Under FFI, Grass and Wise will continue to oversee the studio’s five-picture deal with Cha Cha Cha in Mexico; a three-year first-look deal with Fernando Meirelles’ production company, 02 Filmes, in Brazil; an ongoing production partnership with producer Bill Kong and his Edko Films in Hong Kong; an overall deal with “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov and his production banner in Russia; and an overall production partnership with producer Stephane Sperry’s Liaison Films in France.

“Christian and I have so many touchpoints in terms of filmmaker relationships,” Schamus said. “We can flow a huge amount of resources into the international filmmaking culture and bring cross-border success.”

The new team will tailor overseas distribution to each film. Pics will either go out through Universal Pictures Intl. in various territories or distribution rights will be independently licensed through FFI.

Schamus and Grass said the new arrangement will offer filmmakers around the world a chance to set up, finance, produce, sell or distribute their films either locally or in multiple markets, depending on the commercial appeal of each project.

And while Ang Lee’s $15 million “Lust, Caution” was a disappointment Stateside, it was a huge hit in Asian markets, with a global gross of $65 million.

“Burn After Reading” ($144 million) and “Atonement” ($128 million) were also global hits for Focus. In current release, the Focus biopic “Milk” is a strong awards-season contender.

Schamus, who founded Focus with his former Good Machine partner David Linde (now U co-chairman) in 2002, has always taken a global view of the film biz.

“It’s an opportunity for local filmmakers to get on the world stage and gives Focus a chance to find new filmmaking talent and give them a worldwide platform,” Schamus said.

In addition to “Rudo y Cursi” and “Sin nombre,” Focus and U’s international production group have also collaborated on the co-production with CJ Entertainment of Park Chan-wook’s vampire film “Thirst,” and FFI is also distributing Gonzalez Inarritu’s currently lensing “Biutiful,” starring Javier Bardem.

All titles produced by Cha Cha Cha will continue to be financed by Grass’ group and licensed for distribution overseas by Focus’ international sales organization. The international production group is also co-financing Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces.” Select international distribution rights will be handled by Thompson’s group at FFI, while UPI will release “Embraces” in Latin America.

Projects from the international production group include Heitor Dahlia’s “Adrift,” starring Vincent Cassel, in Brazil; its first French co-production with Studio 37 and One World, “Serge Gainsbourg,” which starts filming Monday Jan. 19; Quentin Tarantino’s currently lensing Brad Pitt starrer “Inglourious Basterds,” which it is co-financing with the Weinstein Co.; “This Side of the Truth,” a co-production with MRC directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson and starring Gervais; and “Shinjuki Incident,” a co-production with JCE Entertainment starring Jackie Chan.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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