You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Voices

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content