Focus looks to regain its fire

'Lust, Caution,' 'Eastern Promises' slated for 2007

Focus Features topper James Schamus is the first to admit that 2006, his first year running the division alone, was not the label’s best.

Former co-president David Linde’s ascension to co-chair of Universal Pictures, he says, “coincided with a much more modest year as far as awards and end-of-the-year box office.

“One of the things I’ve told everyone at the company is we do a good job of learning from our mistakes and disappointments, but please don’t learn too much, because if we do we’ll never make another ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or ‘Catch a Fire.’ ”

The latter is the Phillip Noyce-helmed pic starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke that Focus had pinned much of its awards hopes on. (It was produced along with sister division Working Title.) Though “Catch a Fire” grossed only $4.3 million and hasn’t attracted much kudos notice, Schamus says he still wants to make more like it: inhouse productions with pedigreed filmmakers.

“I’m fortunately old enough to have had good years and not-so-good years,” he says. He has high hopes that fortunes will improve with Focus’ 2007 slate. Among the titles on tap are Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” starring Tony Leung; David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” with Viggo Mortensen; and Terry George’s “Reservation Road” with Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly.

Like other specialty units, Focus is prioritizing production over acquisition. Focus is involved in producing all of the pictures on its slate for 2007, including those from its genre division Rogue Pictures.

Of his appetite for pickups, Schamus says, “I’m reasonably satiated for the moment, but hunger can strike at any minute.”

International sales remains a key part of Focus’ business plan. Linde championed the addition of Rogue and its slate of foreign-friendly genre titles.

When Focus was run by Schamus and Linde, each had a rep for focusing on a different side of the company: Schamus was considered the creative guy with Linde as the numbers guy.

Schamus has gotten more involved in the number-crunching, but some of Linde’s former duties have been filled by Andrew Karpen, who was promoted to Focus president and Rogue co-president.

“I can read a spreadsheet,” Schamus says, “but I love the fact that people think of me as a naif when it comes to business. And I am happy to announce that the new brains is Andrew Karpen.”

Rogue co-president Andrew Rona has emerged as the key production exec for the genre fare, with Focus production prez John Lyons overseeing the Focus slate.

Rogue also has gotten credit for setting up deals with genre vets like Wes Craven, Michael Bay and James Cameron.

Rona’s first big test comes with “The Hitcher” on Jan. 19, the first pic he’s overseen from start to finish since joining Rogue in fall 2005. Other titles on tap for this year include Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright comedy “Hot Fuzz,” ping-pong laffer “Balls of Fury,” and thriller “Strangers.”