Why Focus Features Ditched Horror Flicks and Returned to Its Indie Roots

Three months after a dramatic overhaul swept out one regime and replaced it with another, Focus Features is out in force at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The company is premiering Oscar-hopeful “Loving,” snapping up international distribution rights to “American Honey” with Shia LaBeouf, and is reintroducing itself as a maker of indie films after a failed foray into genre and horror pictures. Under chairman Peter Kujawski, what’s old is new again.

“We’re really going back to what people still associate Focus’ name and brand with and what Focus had originally been doing, which is being a specialty company,” Kujawski told Variety.

That means leaving the films like “Sinister” and “London Has Fallen” to studio parent, Universal Pictures, and doubling down on prestige and filmmaker-driven fare such as “The Theory of Everything” or the upcoming spy thriller “The Coldest City” with Charlize Theron and James McAvoy.

It’s a repudiation of Universal’s 2013 experiment when it ousted founder James Schamus in favor of Peter Schlessel, and charged Schlessel with making the kinds of movies he backed at FilmDistrict, such as “Looper” and “Drive,” that straddled the line between arthouses and multiplexes. The results were mixed. Some of the more commercial films, such as “Insidious Chapter 3” performed well, but others, such as “Self/Less” bombed.

There was also a realization, Kujawski says, that these types of pictures were being provided on the major studio level, specifically through Universal’s longterm deal with Jason Blum, the producer of horror hits such as “The Purge.”

“The kind of pure genre popcorn plays are not Focus’ business anymore,” said Kujawski. “It frees up bandwidth for Focus to lean more heavily into films that are a little but more unique and distinctive.”

Dubbed “Kujo” by his colleagues, the bespectacled, bald-pated, and mild-mannered Kujawski doesn’t give off a showman’s air. Instead, he seems comfortable in the world of data and corporate strategy.

As part of the Focus shakeup, the studio merged the label with Universal Pictures Intl. Productions (UPIP), where Kujawski was managing director. It’s part of an effort to make the unit more global, at a time when the international marketplace is expanding, even for indie films, and the home entertainment sector, particularly with the collapse of the DVD market, is in flux.

Owning global rights to their films gives companies such as Focus extra padding should a movie fall flat domestically. Take “The Danish Girl,” an Oscar-winning 2015 drama that eked out just $11.1 million stateside, but earned a respectable $64.2 million worldwide. Focus owned the world on that film, potentially enabling it to avoid a sea of red ink.

“It allows us to have more pathways to success,” said Kujawski. “We can craft a content that allows us to chase opportunities that are more difficult to chase in world where you are focused almost exclusively on what the domestic distribution strategy is.”

Focus will continue releasing eight to 10 films annually in the U.S. — those it produces in-house, acquires at the script stage or buys upon completion. It will augment that with roughly 20 other releases with an eye toward the overseas market. That’s a combination of local-language movies and films, such as “Room” or “The Witch,” that had different domestic distributors, but still have potential to resonate with foreign crowds.

Along with extending its horizons beyond the United States, the indie space has changed since Focus was founded more than a decade ago. Streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix have made aggressive moves into the movie business. They have shelled out tens of millions of dollars for films such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “War Machine” and made eye-popping bids for the likes of “The Birth of a Nation.” Privately, some indie distributors gripe that the companies are driving up prices to ruinous levels. Their businesses are tied to subscriber numbers (for Netflix) or online retail  (in the case of Amazon), making box office returns an afterthought.

Kujawski takes a more nuanced view of the competition. He acknowledges that there are times when Netflix or Amazon will swoop in and nab the hot projects, but also thinks the promise of financial rewards will allow creativity to flourish.

“It helps fuel independent producers to get more aggressive about the kinds of films that they are out there developing and trying to get made, which then provides a broader set of products for us to look at,” he said.

There is one part of the independent film scene that the new Focus chief believes should be rethought. The hunt for Oscar glory results in a crowd of high-profile dramas, all knocking against each other in the fall and holiday season. That kind of seasonal bloodsport benefits no one, he argues.

“The specialty sector needs to get better about providing a 12-month a year calendar,” said Kujawski. “We need to provide these movies on a regular basis to filmgoers so that a muscle memory develops of every few weeks of getting in the car, going to the theater and watching great movies.”

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