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James and the not-so-giant reach

Focus Features topper talks 'Away We Go'

NEW YORK — The studios’ annual Trauma Time is at the halfway point and they’re breathing a sigh of relief. Well, not really.

Trauma Time consists of the summer movie season when the studios roll out their tent-pole hits — the ones that supposedly give the bankers a sense of security. But while the box office numbers this year have been strong, the potential profit margins look lean.

“My faith in the tentpole business is on the wane,” one moneyman told me last week after surveying the soaring costs of making and marketing several of the big summer movies. A total tab north of $400 million is no longer surreal.

Suddenly the business model of a midrange picture like “The Hangover,” which opened to $45 million, looks downright delicious.

Given the high tension levels around the studios these days, I decided to have a coffee with James Schamus, whose Focus Features doggedly limits its budgets to the $20 million arena and whose view of the business is considerably more relaxed. Typically, Schamus just finished delivering an academic paper to colleagues at Columbia U. as a warm-up to a marketing meeting for the new Focus slate.

In Schamus’ world view, the economics of the specialty film business still makes solid sense — provided it’s a world view. Focus’ worldwide slate for the coming year consists of some 30 movies, of which only eight to 12 are aimed for the domestic market. The rest are co-productions for foreign consumption. “And I am more optimistic than ever about our prospects around the world,” he says.

Two of the new Focus films aimed at the U.S., “Taking Woodstock” and “Away We Go,” have had a bouncy ride with the critics, but Schamus is unbowed. “They’re entertainments,” he insists. “The reaction to ‘Woodstock’ overseas has been outstanding. In this country, the critics seemed to want us to shoot the music festival. This isn’t a music festival movie.” Consistent with his multi-tasking ethic, Schamus wrote the script for the Ang Lee film.

Sofia Coppola starts shooting her new movie for Focus this week titled “Somewhere,” a story about an actor and his 11-year-old kid who live at the Chateau Marmont. Other films from Kevin Macdonald (“The Eagle of the Ninth”) and Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg,” starring Ben Stiller) are imminent. Still other movies are gearing up in Germany, Mexico and South Korea.

And Focus has started a new branding campaign, replete with elegant drawings and imaginative copy on the web and in print media.

“This may sound pretentious, but our aim is to put artists and audiences together — to facilitate a new relationship between the communities,” says Schamus, donning his professorial demeanor. And he feels there’s good money to be made in the process.

The tentpole business this year may become even more demanding because the majors won’t have as much money at their disposal to foster the giant enterprises, he points out. And the hedge funds are in retreat.

In this environment, suddenly specialty films may seem to be an intriguing business once again. Plus it’s one sector of the movie industry where artists can still play.

One of Schamus’ movies coming up for 2010 is a full-length feature about four babies. Yes, babies — a sort of “Angels & Demons” minus the demons. Without dialogue.

It may not qualify as a tentpole, but Jim Schamus seems confident about its worldwide appeal.

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