This year’s Oscar season has been highlighted by the dramatic return of a former mainstay: Focus Features. Under a new regime that began evolving two years ago at a time when many had written off the Universal Pictures specialty division, Focus came roaring back, with 14 nominations across three films, two of them in the motion picture Academy’s top category.
Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” each earned best picture nominations in January, marking the first time Focus has scored twice in one year. Also recognized were leads Gary Oldman, as Winston Churchill, and Daniel Day-Lewis, as a circa-1950s London fashion designer. The two films received six nominations apiece, while Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul,” starring Judi Dench, picked up a pair. Overall, Focus was second only to Fox Searchlight Pictures in total bids per studio, and Oldman is considered the front-runner for the actor Oscar.
“These movies are our bread and butter,” says Focus chairman Peter Kujawski. “It’s absolutely the core of what we do, trying to be a home to filmmakers like that.”
The victory lap follows a recent identity roller-coaster ride for the Universal City-based company. When former FilmDistrict chief executive Peter Schlessel took the reins in late 2013, following the end-of-an-era ousting of former Focus head James Schamus, the company began courting broader audiences with horror sequels and elevated genre pieces. The strategy never quite found its footing.
“We were seeing a real brand confusion,” says Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. “We made the decision to look back to what made Focus, and the specialty business in general, successful. Now it’s a worldwide organization. That wasn’t the case initially.”
Along the way, Focus tapped former Open Road marketing head Jason Cassidy and former Weinstein Co. publicity chief Dani Weinstein to fill out the ranks alongside Kujawski, president Robert Walak and chief operating officer Abhijay Prakash, who were each promoted from within Universal.
Kujawksi specialized in foreign territory acquisitions as the managing director of Universal Pictures Intl. Prods., which merged with Focus in 2016 to form the new model. He also cut his teeth under Schamus at former international sales company Good Machine. He was the perfect candidate to take lead in a new globally minded Focus, and he hit the ground running. Within two weeks of assuming the role, he and his team flew off to the 2016 Berlin Film Festival to view footage of Jeff Nichols’ “Loving.” Fending off competitors, Focus spent $9 million to acquire the film.
“We thought, ‘Hey, this is exactly what we’re talking about, movies that have a cultural and aesthetic impact,’” Kujawski says. The film went on to score a surprise best actress Oscar nomination for star Ruth Negga.
“Darkest Hour” is the box office star of Focus’ 2017 Oscar trio, having crossed $115 million worldwide, while fellow Working Title production “Victoria & Abdul” has minted more than $65 million. Meanwhile, Kujawski’s favorite factoid about “Phantom Thread” — which Focus reportedly financed for $35 million in a negative pickup deal after outbidding Fox Searchlight — is that Anderson’s film recently opened at the top of the charts in Greece.
“There is an ability, we are finding, to cultivate and stoke the fires that come from an international sensibility, movies that might be more challenging aesthetically or movies that aren’t necessarily domestically oriented,” he says. “A film like ‘Darkest Hour’ has a lot of potential all over the world. That’s a very appealing greenlight to us. It might have been a harder greenlight at other iterations of Focus.”
Focus/UPIP has further maintained an international footprint as overseas distributor on other Oscar contenders, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Lady Bird.”
The global philosophy was in some ways reflected in how “Darkest Hour” and “Phantom Thread” performed leading up to the Oscar nominations announcement. Neither was a hit with stateside guilds and industry groups, but both caught on with the British Academy, scoring a combined 13 nominations and foreshadowing surprises like “Phantom Thread” co-star Lesley Manville in the supporting actress category. Kujawski says he never fretted about how the season was shaping up even in the early days.
“We believed the Academy was a unique and specific group,” he says. “The widest array of tastes drives it.”
The results are good enough to mark the single greatest showing for Focus Features in any of the distributor’s many appellations over the years, from the original Gramercy Pictures to USA Films to a new 2.0 version of its former heyday self. By any name, that’s a winner.