U moves put lens on Focus

Linde's rise places Schamus in spotlight, starts rivals jostling for dominance

In the intensely competitive and highly cyclical specialty film business, this has been a banner year for Focus Features.

Until, that is, Focus hit its “good news and bad news” wall in mid-March. That was when David Linde, whose business savvy kindled Focus’ rise, ascended to become co-chairman of Universal Pictures, Focus’ parent.

That opened the question: Does James Schamus, Linde’s longtime partner at Focus, have either the time or the desire to run the label alone?

At a time when the competition in the specialty business is growing sharply more intense, will the departure of Linde, who will now head to Los Angeles from the unit’s Gotham HQ, tip the balance of power in the specialty sector?

It’s rare for a major to pluck an exec from its specialty ranks to oversee the bigger pics so swiftly. The last exec to make a similar transition was Tom Rothman at Fox.

After being named head of Searchlight in 1994, Rothman quickly shifted to the big studio’s production prexy, overseeing the art label and splitting his time with bigger pics.

The voluble Rothman ultimately rose to co-chairman of the studio with Jim Gianopulos, a successful move for both the onetime Samuel Goldwyn exec and Fox, who’ve recently renewed their ties for another five years.

Ostensibly, Linde also will be dealing with bigger pics and Focus fare.

But Schamus is a unique case — a bow-tie enthusiast who’s been known to quote Immanuel Kant onstage at Hollywood premieres, and who one year even skipped Cannes to defend his doctoral dissertation at Berkeley.

The question isn’t whether Schamus has the business savvy — “I have seen him doing deals, and James is the shrewdest motherfucker in negotiating,” one exec observes — but whether he’ll spread himself too thin.

One stereotype of the division was that Linde was the biz powerhouse behind the operation and Schamus was the tastemaker. The latter fact was given credibility by Schamus’ creative accomplishments: screenwriting credits on “The Ice Storm,” “Ride With the Devil,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Hulk,” plus an Oscar nom in the original song category for “Crouching Tiger.”

But most people say the yin-yang of Schamus and Linde wasn’t as simple as that.

“They are both good businessmen and both good creative executives,” says a rival specialty studio topper. “That’s why (Focus) worked. It’s a question of whether James’ heart is in it.”

Schamus engineered the deal to form a partnership with Bertelsmann’s Random House that has recently started to bear fruit, with two politically themed pics in the works, based on the books “The Attack” and “Curveball.” The deal could become more prominent as Schamus steps up to guide the company’s slate.

There are no immediate plans to appoint another co-head of Focus. The studio has indicated that Linde will continue to have a big hand in Focus, and Schamus has said he’s determined to make a go of it just as the label is at its highest point.

Linde’s new job is certainly a mark of the seriousness with which studios are approaching the specialty sector.

Most of these divisions have been ramping up, as studios search for ways to balance their tentpoles with a wider range of niche pics, from offbeat comedies (“Napoleon Dynamite”) to upscale adult fare (“The Constant Gardener”) and docus (“March of the Penguins”).

Competition around town is nevertheless sharpening its fangs. If three years ago, specialty divisions imitated Miramax, and two years ago it was Searchlight, now it’s Focus.

John Lesher has made some bold moves as head of Paramount’s specialty label, mobilizing his former Endeavor clients to help fill his slate. But the newly invigorated, once-sleepy division still doesn’t have a name. And questions remain whether the former agent can oversee and nurture a slate with some tough marketing challenges (including an ambitious period drama by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on a 1927 Upton Sinclair novel).

But Lesher has been buttressing his staff with some experienced players, including two vets from Miramax’s heyday, Amy Israel and Matt Brodlie, as well as Anonymous Content’s Chad Hamilton and Marty Cohen from DreamWorks. Other execs have come from Searchlight, including VP of publicity & promotions Megan Colligan.

Over at Warner Bros., Mark Gill — once rumored to be on the outs at the studio — is enjoying the momentum from such pics as “Penguins” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

And Daniel Battsek, an exec saddled with the labor-intensive task of rebuilding Miramax from the ground up, saw the label’s first acquisition under his guidance, “Tsotsi,” win the foreign-language Oscar.

Meantime, Lionsgate is basking in the Oscar glory of “Crash” and a series of box office hits; Bob and Harvey Weinstein are hoping their ambitious, wide-ranging slate will gather steam; and Michael Barker and Tom Bernard at Sony Pictures Classics continue to do what they’ve always done — work with the world’s best helmers, including Pedro Almodovar and Robert Altman. (SPC is in talks to bring in Altman’s next pic, “Tortoise and Hare.”)

Then there’s the sleepy Searchlight.

After a lackluster year, Searchlight is planning a comeback with a record 15-picture slate for 2006, and topper Peter Rice also is overseeing a separate youth division that will make films and tap into new media platforms.

In Searchlight’s absence, Focus leapt to the fore in 2005. Using the same strategy they’d created at Good Machine, Linde and Schamus sought to protect Focus’ bottom line with solid foreign and DVD sales.

Over the past few years, the division has built up a deep bench that mixes newcomers and vets from the days when the shingle was still called USA Films and before.

Longtime distribution head Jack Foley, biz affairs exec Avy Eschenasy and marketing prexy David Brooks remain in place.

Chief operating officer Andrew Karpen is a respected exec who many are saying will take on a bigger role. Same likely is true of Alison Thompson, the Pathe veteran tapped as Focus Intl. prexy last summer.

Linde oversaw international sales as head of Good Machine Intl., and before that headed Miramax’s foreign sales for the Weinsteins. So Linde comes into his new job at U with broad knowledge of the global film biz.

But the looming question for Universal isn’t the overseas business, which likely will remain a well-oiled machine.

It’s whether Focus can continue its blistering pace at home.