After co-founding Focus Features 11 years ago, CEO James Schamus was told by parent company Universal Pictures Wednesday that he no longer had a job. Universal chairman Donna Langley delivered the bad news to Schamus on in a face-to-face morning meeting in New York.
Employees at Focus, which has offices in New York, L.A. and London, were blindsided by the development, which was announced to the staff by Focus prexy Andrew Karpen.
With FilmDistrict chief Peter Schlessel succeeding Schamus in January, the three-year-old distributor will be absorbed by Focus, which will relocate its headquarters to L.A. from New York. Focus’ Gotham operation, which employs 44 people, is being shuttered. It has not yet been decided how many of those staffers — including Karpen, who has agreed to stay on through the transition – -will be let go as a result, or for that matter how many of Focus’ total 104 staffers (including 43 in L.A. and 17 in London) will also lose their jobs as a result of the reconstituted company.
A Universal spokesman said it has not been decided whether Focus’ London office will also be shut down.
FilmDistrict will no longer be a brand unto itself but will rather live on solely through its existing library titles.
Universal officials also said that it is not yet been decided whether Focus or FilmDistrict will release FilmDistrict’s next two titles, “Oldboy,” directed by Spike Lee (Nov. 27), and “That Awkward Moment,” starring Zac Efron (Jan. 31), but Focus will distribute “Selfless,” a sci-fi adventure starring Ryan Reynolds (originally slated for Sept. 26, 2014).
Neither Schamus, Schlessel or his new boss, Langley, to whom Schamus previously reported, were made available for comment.
The shakeup at Focus is aimed at making the specialty distrib more competitive with its rivals, beefing up its slate with wider-release movies that have more commercial potential, say sources familiar with the strategy.
It’s a blow for independent directors and producers, however, who now have one fewer buyer for their films. Schamus’ former partner, producer Ted Hope, tweeted, “To me this really means the end of indie film — as we once knew it… Schamus = superstar.”
In a prepared statement, Langley noted that FilmDistrict would become “a tremendous asset” to Focus “as the company broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product.”
Focus’ exec shuffling comes just weeks after Universal Pictures underwent a major management upheaval that saw TV exec Jeff Shell replace Adam Fogelson as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. At the same time Langley was promoted to Universal Pictures chair, reporting to Shell.
The Focus restructuring comes at a critical juncture for the distributor, which is poised to release the Matthew McConaughey AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club” on Nov. 1 and is starting production on “Fifty Shades of Grey” at the end of the month. Focus has been planning a big awards push for “Dallas” (McConaughey is being buzzed about as a shoo-in best actor nominee). Focus is also expected to make an awards push for “The Place Beyond the Pines” and its Alex Gibney WikiLeaks documentary “We Steal Secrets.”
Prior to Comcast Corp.’s 2011 acquisition of Focus parent NBCUniversal, Focus’ future was very murky. Universal Pictures had planned on putting the distrib on the sales block but reversed course when Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts, a well-known fan of independent film, said he wanted to keep the operation in the fold.
FilmDistrict’s biggest hits at the box office — “Olympus Has Fallen,” which grossed just under $100 million, and the “Insidious” franchise, from U low-budget hitmaker Jason Blum — point to the kinds of commercial fare Universal wants Focus to release. By comparison, Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” which Schamus produced, stands as the highest-grossing film for Focus, with $83 million domestically.
In addition to “Brokeback,” many of Focus’s films over the years have gone on to become critical and specialty box office hits, including “The Kids Are All Right,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Atonement,” “Lost in Translation” and “Milk.”
Like Universal, Focus has had a solid year at the box office, with successes including “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “The World’s End.” Neither was a major commercial hit, however.
Schamus is exiting Focus without a production deal with the company he helped launch. Instead, his only announced plans are to produce Lee’s next film, set in the world of boxing during the 1960s and 1970s. Pic is still in development for Universal.
In a prepared statement, Schamus said: “It’s been an amazing and joyous run at Focus, where our love of film has always been matched by our love and respect for our filmmakers and for each other. I wish Peter all the best with the next chapter, and look forward to working with my great colleagues at Universal on Ang’s movie and many more to come.”