New Machine comes into Focus

Majors' need for specialty fare coincides with indie coin crunch

When the erudite Good Machine founder James Schamus and his sales sidekick David Linde struck a deal with Vivendi Universal to run the studio’s specialty unit Focus ten days ago, the message was clear: Today’s independents almost by necessity have to be dependent on deep-pocketed entities.

At the same time, studios increasingly need specialty labels to guarantee a supply of original and sometimes kudo-worthy work, particularly at a time when tentpole and franchise pics have become their bread-and-butter.

“If you look at the trajectory of our company over the last 11 years,” Schamus says, “this was the next logical step. It’s a very natural evolution for us.”

Since 1994, when Disney acquired Miramax, it had become clear that indie film was no longer a fringe business and that to succeed, specialty labels needed the financial muscle and marketing acumen of a major behind them.

The real challenge, however, will be whether the Gotham-based GM toppers can adapt their talents and sensibility to the demands of the Franco-American colossus.

From U’s perspective, the studio believes it has now reinvigorated its specialty division — aunit that now must live up to the admiral record of USA Films.

“We think this new entity gives us the firepower we need to accelerate Universal’s commitment to growing our specialty film business,” says U Studios prexy Ron Meyer.

The new shingle at U will include many of the key players from the now-defunct USA Films — but it’s still unclear what kind of movies it will make and whether it’ll be able to compete with the likes of Miramax.

Good Machine is particularly known for the arthouse fare of Ang Lee, who has made all of his pics to date with Schamus and Good Machine co-founder Ted Hope producing.

Despite the stellar reputation of Linde as a salesman of niche pics to the international marketplace, however, Good Machine has no track record as a domestic distributor.

Though GM found modest successes with some of its smaller pics, including “Tao of Steve” and “The Brothers McMullen,” several of its larger endeavors, including the Lee-helmed “Ride With the Devil,” fell flat at the B.O.

Focus inherits the infrastructure of USA Films, with marketing topper Steven Flynn and distribution head Jack Foley, who were instrumental in the release of “Gosford Park” and “Traffic,” expected to stay on despite the departure of prexy Scott Greenstein.

The latter’s exit came as a surprise given the fact that the unit was on something of a roll, with “Monsoon Wedding” the company’s latest success story.

Still, the Focus acquisitions team should be a formidable competitor in Cannes, with the combined manpower of Good Machine, USA Films, StudioCanal and U.

Perhaps Focus’ greatest assets are the two men who will run it.

When Schamus isn’t writing and producing, he’s a Columbia University professor known for his classes on film theory and what he calls “no-budget” production.

Along with Hope, he launched Good Machine in 1991 from a small loft space in lower Manhattan. The shingle cut its teeth on edgy pics such as Todd Haynes’ “Safe.”

But it was the relationship with Lee that raised Good Machine’s profile.

With Hope and Schamus producing, Lee helmed the award-winning pics “The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Sense and Sensibility,” which won Lee an Academy Award nom for best director.

Schamus adapted the Rick Moody novel “The Ice Storm” for Lee, and co-wrote “Crouching Tiger” and the tentpole pic “Hulk,’ which Lee is currently completing for Universal.

In 1997, Schamus and Hope tapped vet Linde to run a fledging Good Machine Intl.

Soft-spoken and shrewd, Linde had come up in the business selling indie pics, TV shows and docs as VP of Fox/Lorber. In 1991, he landed as VP of acquisitions at Miramax, and soon rose to become exec VP and head of sales at the newly created Miramax Intl.

After handling international sales for pics such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Linde realized the potential for U.S. indie films overseas. The new arrangement at U significantly broadens Linde’s purview. Because of its domestic distribution component, Focus will likely become an even more attractive destination for the foreign distribs and producers with whom GMI had been in business.

Miramax, which recently ended a one year, first-look deal with GM, is well aware of what its downtown New York neighbor brings to the table: the international savvy of Linde as well as Schamus’ keen eye for talent and an ability to shepherd material from script to screen.

For the moment, Good Machine’s projects fall into the hands of Hope, who has inked a first-look pact with Focus, joining forces with GM inhouse producers Anthony Bregman and Anne Carrey.

As for USA Films’ projects, Focus will release every pic that had been slated, including doc “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” Neil Labute’s “Possession” and “Far From Heaven,” starring Julianne Moore and directed by Haynes.

It’s uncertain whether projects such as “Vanity Fair,” which had been in development at USA, will move forward.Focus will make 8-12 pics a year outside of the films it acquires or handles for third-party international sales.

“We want to make movies with really good producers or directors, whether their budgets are $2 million or $40 million,” says Linde. “The films that we do will reflect the people in the company. We might do pure arthouse or genre or specialty films.”

Neither Linde nor Schamus, however, would say whether Focus will be able to greenlight its own films without U Pictures chairman Stacey Snider’s approval — the kind of autonomy that Miramax’s Weinstein brothers have under their arrangement with Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney Co., and that New Line has under AOL Time Warner.