Focus CEO mixes artistry, business skills

Trailblazer Award: James Schamus

James Schamus — a fast-talking New Yorker with a weakness for bow ties and bookish round glasses — is frequently described as an intellectual, even an egghead. It’s an image he often encourages, such as when he pontificated about the B horror flick “Seed of Chucky” to an interviewer as raising “gender-identification issues” and posing a “smart critique of dominant mores.”

He moonlights as a professor at Columbia U., where he teaches film theory and feels at home dissecting the work of long-dead but still abstruse Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.

A minimogul, veteran screenwriter and award-winning producer, Focus Features CEO Schamus doesn’t do it all, but he comes close. (Once, he even tried his hand at soundtracks, penning an Oscar-nominated song for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a film he also co-wrote and produced.)

Since placing his doctoral thesis on the back burner two decades ago to dive into the nascent independent film movement, Schamus, 49, has played key roles in writing, financing and producing some of the more memorable recent American films, which is why he will receive the Woodstock Film Festival’s Trailblazer Award. The laurel recognizes his diverse skills and contributions to cinema, including his work on all of director Ang Lee’s features, from “Wedding Banquet” to “Ice Storm” to “Brokeback Mountain.”

Although he’s spent much of his career helping create and fund risky films that otherwise might not have been greenlighted — “Brokeback” being a case in point — the playful Schamus demurs when asked if he considers his work trailblazing.

“It depends,” he says, “on how you define ‘trail’ and ‘blaze.’ ”

Meira Blaustein, Woodstock Festival’s co-founder and executive director, is more effusive about Schamus’ work. “These are very high-quality projects that really do add to our world,” says Blaustein, adding that Schamus embodies a unique blend of writer, producer, studio exec and Ivy League prof.

“That’s a lot for one person, and it really puts him among the best,” Blaustein says. “He’s also nice and friendly.”

Together, Lee and Schamus have worked on 10 films together, including the upcoming “Taking Woodstock.” Schamus says he and Lee complement each other. Through ups and downs, they have continued collaborating, inspired partly, Schamus says, by their mutual commitment to “not fall in a rut.”

“The whole point is to not do something people have done before,” Schamus explains.

As a producer faced with tough sells, he has consistently wrangled financing by courting international investors and selling rights abroad. He’s been known to pay close attention to contract details and even devised the marketing campaign for “Crouching Tiger.”

Blaustein says Schamus’ combination of artistry with business skills sets him apart. “You could say that one is a refuge from the terrors of the other,” says Schamus, but he adds that, instead, he finds creativity and business to be “wholly entwined.”

He sees his own career as a tale of survival. Some movies have worked, others haven’t. “I’m still standing,” he says, with a touch of both self-deprecation and pride.

And although Schamus allowed that Ph.D. to slip for more than a decade, he never let it fade to black: In 2003, Schamus finally earned his doctorate in English from Berkley; this fall, his long-delayed Dreyer dissertation got published, surprising even his mother.

And on the subject of trailblazing — which at past festivals has gone to the likes of Jonathan Sehring of IFC Entertainment and Ted Sarandos of Netflix — the quick-witted academic can’t resist a parting parse.

“I’m really much more of a footpath bender,” he says.


What: 9th annual Woodstock Film Fest

When: Wednesday thru Oct. 5

Where: Venues include (in Woodstock) Tinker Street Cinema, Bearsville Theater, Town Hall, Community Center, Utopia Studios; (in Rhinebeck) Upstate Films 2 & 2; (in Rosendale) Rosendale Theater 


Opening night: “Pride and Glory” (Gavin O’Connor); “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh); “Flash of Genius” (Marc Abraham)

Closing night: “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (Kevin Smith); “The Great Buck Howard” (Sean McGinly)

Centerpiece films: “Wendy and Lucy” (Kelly Reichardt); “The Secret of the Grain” (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Panels include Music in Film; A Conversation With James Schamus; Amazing Women in Film; Movies That Matter; Today’s Documentaries

Topper: Meira Blaustein, WFF exec director and co-founder