Producer, screenwriter and Focus Features CEO James Schamus launched his career two decades ago with the influential indie shingle Good Machine and his first collaboration with Ang Lee, the filmmaker’s 1992 debut “Pushing Hands.”
Schamus, who is receiving the Hampton Fest’s Industry Toast, appears wary of the ribbing that takes place at the Toast — or “Roast,” as he’s called it — but he acknowledges his time has come.
“If you’ve failed regularly, as I do, and pick yourself back up and keep going, after awhile you’re on the list and they call you,” Schamus jokes. “That’s certainly a part of it. You have to be able to absorb (failure). I think that goes for anybody who has been around long enough.”
Schamus is being modest, of course. Nominated for three Oscars — best picture for “Brokeback Mountain,” and adapted screenplay and original song for “Crouching Tiger,” — Schamus has stewarded Focus Features through the most trying times in the specialized film business, largely though the company’s global strategy, cultivating world talents and markets.
“There’s a very mundane reason for that,” he explains. “It’s called the flow of capital. In order for us to do what we do, we have to be anchored as an American company, but we have to be attuned to and decisively planted in a number of foreign climates. It’s the job.”
Just as comfortable discussing global markets as an obscure Federico Fellini film, Schamus has balanced his CEO and screenwriting duties with his job as a film professor at Columbia U. But as Schamus says, his “nerd” hat is not that different from the one he wears as an exec.
“If you can survive academic politics, Hollywood is a piece of cake,” he says. “People are people.”
Looking back at his two decades in the business of film culture, Schamus says his biggest highlight is the community that he’s grown up in, celebrating “the fact that I appear to be on speaking terms with so many people I was working with over 20 years ago,” he says. “This is a community that’s not driven by petty jealousies. I know if I’ve got a problem, I can call Christine Vachon or Michael Barker or a whole array of filmmakers. People are generally there for each other.”
“To me,” he adds, “that’s the great miracle of it all.”
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