Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” a suspenseful tale about a Texas kidnapping gone wrong starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, had audiences squirming and squealing at the Toronto Film Festival. Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” about a married multi-racial couple in ’60s Virginia, received a heartfelt standing ovation. And J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” a special effects-laden allegory with the voice of Liam Neeson in the title role, had everybody bawling, even the chairman of Focus Features, which is distributing all three films this fall season.
“The first time I saw ‘A Monster Calls,’ it was borderline embarrassing, sitting with the staff,” says Peter Kujawski, the longtime Universal executive who has run Focus Features since February. “It wasn’t like I had a gentle tear rolling down my face. I needed a minute. That’s happened every time,” including the premiere last weekend in Canada’s Roy Thomson Hall, where star Sigourney Weaver melted into a puddle of sobs.
In the last seven months, Focus Features has set its sights on re-establishing its roots as a destination for prestige pictures and Oscar contenders. The division of NBCUniversal, launched in 2002 under James Schamus and David Linde, became the Mercedes-Benz of independent films with hits such as “Traffic,” “Atonement,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right.”
But as the business of distributing high-brow movies changed, so did the management of Focus. In 2013, Comcast bosses brought in FilmDistrict co-founder Peter Schlessel to make the special division more commercial with broad comedies, like Zac Efron’s “That Awkward Moment,” and horror movies, in addition to the occasional Oscar fare like “The Theory of Everything.” That experiment ended earlier this year, when Kujawski — an executive who had started at Schamus’ Focus and more recently managed international distribution at Universal — took the reins with the mandate to restore the label’s legacy.
It’s an interesting time to be in the art house business, which has seen an infusion of energy from new players like A24 and Bleecker Street. The Weinstein Co., which used to exercise a stronghold over the space, has said it will produce more TV to offset financial hardships. Netflix and Amazon Studios are now aggressively bidding on independent movies on the festival circuit, but some directors are still cautious about selling to them, because filmmakers still want a commitment for their films to play on many theatrical screens. That leaves a void for Focus to compete with Fox Searchlight, a traditional distributor with a strong track record of placing movies in the Oscars race.
Kujawski says that the strategy for the new Focus is twofold. “One was to return,” he says. “We are now squarely back to being a filmmaker-driven, auteur-driven, specialty film house.” Second, Focus is now more active in securing worldwide distribution rights for films, where upscale projects (such as last year’s “The Danish Girl”) sometimes find a faster path to profitability in Europe and other foreign territories. “When you start to do an analysis on the global gains, there are a lot of things you can do to run the business responsibly while still taking a shot on things that are not obvious,” Kujawski says.
As Toronto was about to kick off, Focus snatched up worldwide rights to the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, set in the ’50s London fashion world. The division’s 2017 slate will also include Stephen Frears’ “Victoria and Abdul,” starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria (a recipe that sounds like a sure bet for the Oscars); Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” with Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill; and Sofia Coppola’s “Beguiled,” a remake of sorts of 1971’s “The Beguiled,” with Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst.
Of course, box office receipts in the months ahead will determine if the three movies that Focus debuted at Toronto will be success stories. Even strong reviews are no guarantee of commercial appeal: “Steve Jobs” and “Truth” both struggled last fall.
But based on positive buzz, it does seem like the distributor has found its footing back in the art house sphere. And, true to its origins, Focus plans on launching Oscars campaigns for “A Monster Calls,” “Loving” (co-starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) and “Nocturnal Animals,” which won the grand jury prize out of Venice. “We believe in all of them,” Kujawski says. “We are absolutely going to make sure we got them in front of the right people —Academy voters and beyond.”