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As Focus Moves Into More Commercial Territory, Indie Films Need a New Champion

Specialty films usually go into hiding during tentpole season, but filmgoers should worry about the disappearance not only of the films but of the companies that make them. Even stalwart Focus Features, one of the few surviving art labels, seemed headed for extinction earlier this year when its top executives were fired and its New York and London offices shuttered.

Would Focus, too, follow the fate of Vantage, Warner Classics, Good Machine, USA Films and all the rest? Under the brilliant, if quirky, stewardship of James Schamus, Focus delivered seminal films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Pianist” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”

So will there still be a Focus or, for that matter, a specialty film business?

The answer is yes, but the game plan will be significantly different from that of Schamus — and finding out what that plan is poses its own problems. Peter Schlessel, the new boss of Focus, isn’t interested in talking strategy, which is in keeping with the dictates of his parent companies, Universal and Comcast; its executives are instructed to make profits, not speeches.

Talking with agents, producers and other suppliers, however, the new Focus looks like it will turn out a busy program of about 10 films a year — nearly all co-financed — embodying a mix of midbudget action and genre films, some sci-fi and even some animation. There will also be art films, provided most contain commercial elements (read: a major star or an important director). Overhead will be sparse, as will be funding for development.

In short, the company will bear a fair resemblance to Film District, the successful indie shingle Schlessel ran for three years, which released product like “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Insidious” and “Looper.” Focus, like Film District, will allocate more resources to marketing than to production, but will still retain creative control.

All this reflects the fact that Schlessel, 51, while thoughtful and well read, came out of a business affairs background and is very much plugged into the bottom line. He co-founded Film District in 2010 with Graham King and Timothy Headington. He will align Focus with promising filmmakers like Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”) on the release of “Kill the Messenger,” in which Jeremy Renner stars as a journalist who broke the CIA Nicaragua cocaine scandal; Tarsem Singh on Ryan Reynolds starrer “Selfless”; and James Marsh on “Theory of Everything.”  And he’ll continue the relationship with production entities like Working Title (“The World’s End,” “Theory of Everything”), as well as distributing “Fifty Shades of Grey” (a deal that preceded him).

Underlying the Focus model is the assumption that there’s a lot of money out there that’s chasing independent movies — funding that in turn will be attracted to a distribution machine like Focus/Universal, commanding rich output deals and a vast product flow.

Under Schlessel’s model at Film District, movies such as “Olympus Has Fallen” grossed $99 million domestically, and the sequel to “Insidious” made $84 million. But some filmmakers might legitimately ask whether the new Focus will be hospitable to such riskier releases by the former Focus as “The Kids Are All Right.”

The key remaining players on the specialty landscape are the venerable Sony Classics, whose budgets are even leaner than those of Focus, and Fox Searchlight, the unit that was founded by Tom Rothman, whose reign at Fox ended a little more than a year ago.

If the bankers had their way, Hollywood’s resources would be channeled exclusively to tentpoles — the films that also propel theme parks and cruise ships — and their global fans. To be sure, this strategy ignores the considerable audience that avoids the cineplex most of the summer, preferring protagonists wrapped more in plot than in spandex.

The new Focus believes there are considerable profits to be made with other people’s money. Its success will depend on its marketing acumen and on the willingness of those “other people” to keep spending.

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