With audacious directors, courageous actors and unforgettable stories that have touched the lives of cinephiles on a global scale, Focus Features has been a fixture in the Hollywood firmament for two decades.
Since its inception, 14 Focus films have been nominated for best picture: “The Pianist” (2002), “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Atonement” (2007), “Milk” (2008), “A Serious Man” (2009), “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), “The Theory of Everything” (2014), “Darkest Hour” (2017), “Phantom Thread” (2017), “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and “Belfast” (2021).
Marking the 20th anniversary of its first theatrical release, Variety is ranking the 30 best Focus Features films so far.
In the summer of 2002, the arthouse studio released its first feature, “Possession,” a romantic drama with Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Neil LaBute and adapted from the novel by A.S. Byatt, this film had a soft opening, so if you were judging the likelihood of the studio’s future success based on the film’s performance at the box office, you might have assumed it might not go the distance. But like all Hollywood Cinderella tales, a little magic and guidance can go a long way.
It began with James Schamus and David Linde in 2002 as a specialty film division of Universal formed from USA Films, Universal Focus and Good Machine. The NBCUniversal-owned company went on to create some of the most inspirational and provocative films of the last 20 years. Focus is currently led by Peter Kujawski, whose career has been incubated inside the walls of Focus Features.
“There’s a spirit that’s been there since day one,” says Kujawski. “It’s been there throughout and it’s what guides us as a studio. It also truly empowers us to say to filmmakers, go do your thing. We are here to make sure that you are making your version of your movie because that’s what the audience wants to see.”
Three of its six features released in 2002 were the French comedy “8 Women” by François Ozon, the period drama “Far from Heaven” by Todd Haynes and the Holocaust film “The Pianist” by Roman Polanski. “Pianist” upset three major categories for best actor (Adrien Brody), adapted screenplay and director. The secret was out on the “new kid” on the Hollywood block, and everyone needed to pay attention. Focus forged ahead into the moviemaking landscape with bold tenacity, hitting several cultural milestones.
The impact of Focus would become even more significant when the company released the romantic cowboy drama “Brokeback Mountain” with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival and later opening in December 2005, the film received universal acclaim and grossed over $178 million worldwide from a modest $14 million budget. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three but losing the top prize to racial drama “Crash,” considered one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
However, Focus has created more milestones than its 2006 ceremony loss.
Eighteen women-directed films have been nominated for best picture in 94 years. Focus is behind three of them, the most of any studio. In addition, Focus is also responsible for getting the first American woman nominated for best director (Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation”), the instance of more than one Black producer nominated for best picture (“BlacKkKlansman” with Spike Lee and Jordan Peele), and the first Latino winner for original song (Jorge Drexler for “Al otro lado del rio” from “The Motorcycle Diaries”).
They’ve been behind accomplished and respected actors getting statuettes such as Christopher Plummer (supporting actor for “Beginners”), Rachel Weisz (supporting actress for “The Constant Gardener”), Gary Oldman (best actor for “Darkest Hour”) and Alicia Vikander (supporting actress for “The Danish Girl”).
There’s still more to come. They’ve already turned a few heads with Robert Eggers’ Viking epic “The Northman” and the Cannes stunner “The Silent Twins” with Letitia Wright. They’ll be bringing us the latest from acclaimed filmmaker Todd Field with “TÁR” starring Cate Blanchett later this year before their 2023 and beyond unleashes with the latest from Wes Anderson (“Asteroid City”) and an Ethan Coen solo directing project.
As for the next 20 years, Kujawski says “we’re getting better. As more films get made, audiences are receptive to broader ideas and genres. We’ve been the beneficiary of that, to find filmmakers, support them, empower them and sell things assertively and aggressively. With this list of the 30 best movies you’re creating, I hope we can fill a list of 100.”
Read Variety’s list of the best Focus Feature films below, along with the best scene from each selection.
Honorable mentions: “The Beguiled” (2017); “Boy Erased” (2018); “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013); “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018); “Nocturnal Animals” (2016); “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2013); “Pride and Prejudice” (2005); “A Serious Man” (2009); “Sin Nombre” (2009); “The Theory of Everything” (2014)