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Why Focus Features is Again Getting a Drastic Reboot

Focus Features’ ongoing identity crisis worsened Thursday, as the specialty unit behind “The Theory of Everything,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonrise Kingdom” underwent its second major management shakeup in less than three years.

Focus CEO Peter Schlessel, who replaced founder James Schamus in 2013, is being ousted as part of a drastic housecleaning by parent Universal Pictures.  The studio is merging the label with Universal Pictures International Productions (UPIP), in an attempt to make the unit more global and artistically relevant after a series of highly touted  awards-season pictures such as “The Danish Girl” and “Suffragette” collapsed at the box office. UPIP Managing Director Peter Kujawski will now be tasked with being chairman of the global unit.

The bloodletting, which is also resulting in the loss of COO Adrian Alperovich, marketing president Christine Birch and acquisitions chief Lia Buman, seems to be an acknowledgment by Universal’s brass that it erred in its attempts to re-position Focus as a genre unit — one that would cater more to horror fans than cinephiles. That was the rational for replacing Schamus three years ago with Schlessel. Schamus was viewed as being too professorial, too much a product of the Cahiers du Cinéma set, while Schlessel, who as founder of FilmDistrict had produced mid to low-budget hits such as “Looper” and “Drive,” was viewed as being able to give an arthouse gloss to violent, star-driven projects that were more overtly commercial. Earlier in his career, Schlessel was also a top executive at Sony Pictures.

 

But the overhaul never fully took shape. Focus could never seem to figure out what it wanted to be. It was still committed to churning out one or two bona fide Oscar contenders, such as the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” (which was greenlit before Schlessel came onboard) or the Hollywood satire “Map to the Stars,” but those sat awkwardly on a slate that also included the Zac Efron romantic comedy “That Awkward Moment” and the Jude Law nautical thriller “Black Sea.” Meanwhile, sources say that Schlessel passed on “Boyhood” out of Sundance 2014, even though Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley was said to be a fan of the eventual Oscars contender.

There were simply not enough critical or commercial riches to endorse the new approach, dimly conceived though it may have been. Last year, only four Focus releases took in more than $10 million at the box office, and one of those pictures, the Ryan Reynolds thriller “Self/Less,” grossed less than half of its $26 million budget, making it a flop.

At the same time, other studios began to play in that space. STX Entertainment, armed with financial backing from venture-capital firm TPG and Chinese private-equity firm Hony Capital, is producing thrillers, comedies and other types of films for older crowds, while Broad Green, fueled by mutual fund billionaire Gabriel Hammond, greenlights or acquires projects geared towards the very audience Focus was supposed to be trying to capture. The competition is growing fiercer at a time when Focus is losing its competitive edge.

In an interview with Variety last fall, Langley acknowledged frustrations with Focus’ results. “We’re seeing where the sweet spot of the specialty business really sits,” she said. “We haven’t quite found the right product mix.”

Insiders say the new Focus will be more akin to Fox Searchlight — interested in making films for sophisticated audiences, such as “Wild” or “Birdman,” that can cross over beyond the arthouse and transcend international borders. It would be tempting to see this reshuffling as hitting the reset button and going back to the old Focus Features. But that iteration, especially during Schamus’ last years with the company, is still viewed as favoring films that were too quirky (i.e., Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock”).

For decades, major studios have looked overseas for profits. Now, the specialty world is also mirroring that larger global shift in the entertainment business, spurred by shrinking profit margins and the emergence of new, digital distribution systems that both threaten the theatrical business and provide new revenue streams. Fox Searchlight, the company Focus hopes to emulate, has made a point of keeping foreign rights to its movies. It’s not alone. At this year’s Sundance, studios put a premium on snapping up global rights, with pictures such as the relationship dramedy “The Intervention,” the financial drama “Equity,” and the magic thriller “Sleight” all landing worldwide deals instead of selling off their territories piecemeal.

“The independent world has been squeezed in the last ten years,” said Jason Squire, a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The question is whether Focus will continue to be an independent-style studio or will it fade?”

With new management comes a fresh chance for Focus to re-emerge — as well as the risk that it could join Warner Independent, Miramax, and Paramount Vantage as reminders of an era when studios saw the independent world as a source of compelling content, not just reminders of a distant past.

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