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Is studio messing with Focus mojo?

Execs say Linde will not be replaced as co-prexy

The ascension of David Linde can be seen as a trauma for Focus Features, but his ascension at Universal is a tribute to the role of specialty wings at the majors — and to Focus in particular.

U and Focus execs emphasize that Linde is not leaving Focus and will not be replaced as co-prexy, but clearly his new duties will change the chemistry at Universal’s niche label, which has been GE’s most stable hitmaker in the last few years.

Formed four years ago from the ashes of Good Machine and USA Films, Focus hit the ground running, making a big splash at the 2002 Cannes with the acquisition of Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which won the Palme d’Or and went on to nab three Oscars.

Since then, Linde and co-prexy James Schamus have proved themselves masters at packaging offbeat material such as “Lost in Translation” and “Brokeback Mountain” — pics that had major zeitgeist impact and turned into big moneymakers.

Focus had a particularly good year in 2005, with a diverse slate including “Brokeback,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “The Constant Gardener.” In a year when specialty divisions dominated the awards season, Focus took center stage.

Box office has followed the critical acclaim: “Brokeback” has grossed $149 million worldwide, “Gardner” $78 million and “Pride” $112 million.

The company averages an output of five or six films a year. Rogue, the genre label formed in spring 2004, also puts out five or six annually.

Linde’s thorough understanding of how to limit financial exposure through international sales has been key to making the Focus business model work.

The conventional wisdom about the Focus duo has always been that Schamus is the creative nerve center and Linde the sharp business mind — a characterization both dispute.

The reputations are seemingly supported by Schamus’ background as a screenwriter and film academic and by Linde’s track record shaping Miramax Intl. through the 1990s into an indie powerhouse with a global reach.

But both former Good Machine cronies balk at that, with Linde pointing up Schamus’ dealmaking savvy and Schamus lauding his partner’s skill at generating and maintaining fruitful creative relationships.

On Thursday, Schamus remained characteristically good-humored about the changes. In a statement, he emphasized that Linde will continue to be a vital force at Focus in what he anticipates will be a seamless transition.

“For 10 years, I’ve tried to figure out the best way to dissolve my partnership with David, and I finally found the perfect way — they make him my boss!” Schamus said. “David is simply the best executive and best colleague I’ve ever worked with, and he and Marc are going to be the most formidable team in the business.”