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James Schamus on Venturing Into TV, Ties To China, and Admiration for DFI’s Qumra

James Schamus held a packed master class Saturday at the Doha Film Institute’s innovative Qumra workshop/festival in Doha, where the former Focus Features topper recently turned director also revealed plans to move into making a TV series. He’s doing so while launching his new Symbolic Exchange shingle financed by China’s Meridian Entertainment. Schamus, who is wearing a Mao Jacket these days rather than his trademark bow tie, spoke to Variety about his close rapport with Qumra artistic adviser Elia Suleiman and what’s he’s got on the horizon after leaving Focus and successfully helming “Indignation.”

Elia told me you guys go back a long way. I think you helped him make a short when you were at Good Machine. Can you tell me more about your friendship with this great Palestinian director?

We met when we were both getting started. He was living a few blocks from me in New York. When you meet Elia, the first thing you notice is this incredible sense of humor that’s grounded in an incredibly painful understanding of the ways of the world. We’ve never worked together officially. But some of my favorite “thank you” credits are those I’ve accumulated pretty regularly on his movies, and I’m very proud of that because I think he’s one of the great masters of world cinema.

What’s your take on Qumra?

I was around when he began the discussions [about Qumra] with the Doha Film Institute, and was really excited when, in his typical fashion, he was bold enough to say: “Stop! Let’s rethink everything.” It was great to see him make the shift from his usual: “is this real?” To: “Wow! They are serious and they are pretty cool. I think they are going to do it!” Elia has had this extraordinary opportunity to reconceptualize what it can mean to have the Middle East radiate outwards toward world cinema in a way that I think is pretty unique.

After parting ways with Focus in 2013 you’ve launched Symbolic Exchange with Meridian Entertainment in China as one of your funders. I love the company’s name. Does it have a special meaning?

The name is inspired by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It comes out of a moment of really profound and productive radical critique of the financialization of human culture. And so it’s been fun to embed the history of thinking into my little company name. I made a real resolution after I was bumped from Focus not to take on a big venture, at least initially. Not even have visions of grandeur empire building. Quite the opposite. As the years went by at Focus, where I had so much fun, the corporate stuff increased and I became more distanced from the creative work.

So what’s the plan with Symbolic Exchange?

We’ve got a great relationship with a company in China called Meridian Entertainment. I have a development fund and a production fund. We’ve been very much under the radar, working on some “smaller films” but developing some larger-scale projects too. Meridian are amassing a very substantial war chest. They are quietly making some significant investments in the media landscape within China itself and they are looking for opportunities outside. So a fair amount of my time with them is spent talking about strategic stuff that they are looking at. But it’s very specific and very organic. There’s no manic spending spree logic to it, which I like. I’ve been doing some consulting for them on other business opportunities, on some of their Chinese content.

What can you tell me about this TV project you mentioned during the master class.

I’m setting up a limited TV series in Europe. I’m not sure if I will end up directing some of it or not. That’s a decision we will make later. I’m creating and pushing and executive producing this project. I hope we will be able to announce that in the next couple of months. I’m going to London tomorrow, and that’s the last piece, the last leg of the co-production puzzle.

How is Ang Lee’s 3D “Thrilla in Manila,” about the famous 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, coming along?

We are happily making that with Studio 8. I didn’t know Jeff Robinov, I just knew him by reputation when he was at Warner Brothers and the support he was giving to auteur filmmakers. It’s fun to see that ethos. Ang is in early stages, extending his  investigations into the technologies and the effects. He’s really all about pushing that envelope. Ang’s trajectory right now is towards pushing cinema to a whole new place.

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