It would be tough to come up with a studio executive with more sterling credentials than James Schamus, chief operating officer of Focus Features. His association with director Ang Lee dates back to 1992’s “Pushing Hands,” on which Schamus acted as writer-producer, a dual role he has played on virtually all subsequent Lee films.
Schamus’ parallel track as a film exec, beginning with the company he co-founded with Ted Hope — Good Machine — has allowed him to nurture such filmmakers as Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener and Todd Haynes. In 2002, when Good Machine was acquired by Universal Pictures, Schamus, along with David Linde, became a natural to run the major’s specialty label, Focus Features, which has figured in the Oscar best picture category consistently, dating back to 2002’s “The Pianist” and continuing with “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and 2007 contender “Atonement.”
“Atonement,” an outgrowth of Universal’s prolific partnership with the U.K’s Working Title, might seem to be the most traditional best picture nominee of the current bunch, given its highbrow literary pedigree, period patina and historic sweep.
But Schamus — who touts a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and holds a faculty position at Columbia U. — is hardly content to rest on his laurels, or let his minions do his bidding. He was in the fray at Sundance, along with Focus president Andrew Karpen, when the company threw down $10 million for “Hamlet 2,” Andrew Fleming’s comedy about a high school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) who seeks to motivate his students by writing a sequel to “Hamlet.”
The upcoming year will also see Focus rolling out Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk and Josh Brolin as Dan White, who assassinated Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978.