After co-founding Focus Features 11 years ago, CEO James Schamus was told by parent company Universal Pictures that he no longer had a job. Universal chairman Donna Langley delivered the bad news to Schamus Wednesday morning in a face- to-face meeting in New York.
Employees at Focus, which has offices in New York, L.A. and London, were blindsided by the development, which was announced to the staff by Focus prexy Andrew Karpen.
It is unclear how many of FilmDistrict's 45 employees and Focus' nearly 100 staffers will lose their jobs as a result of the consolidation of the companies. Focus' staff is currently divided primarily between New York and L.A., with fewer people based in the overseas office.
Universal is not saying whether FilmDistrict will survive as a brand within Focus or simply be disbanded. FilmDistrict's next two titles, "Oldboy," directed by Spike Lee (Nov. 27) and "That Awkward Moment," starring Zac Efron (Jan. 31), will still be released by FilmDistrict, according to the distrib. All films thereafter will be distributed through Focus.
Neither Schamus nor any other Focus exec were made available for interviews. Likewise, Schlessel's new boss, Langley, to whom Schamus previously reported, also declined to comment.
The shake up at Focus is aimed at making the specialty distrib more competitive with its rivals, beefing up its slate with wider release movies that have more commercial potential, say sources familiar with the strategy.
In a prepared statement, Langley noted that FilmDistrict would become "a tremendous asset" to Focus "as the company broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product."
Focus' exec shuffling comes just weeks after Universal Pictures underwent a major management upheaval that saw TV exec Jeff Shell replace Adam Fogelson as chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. At the same time Langley was promoted to Universal Pictures chair, reporting to Shell.
The Focus restructuring comes at a critical juncture for the distributor, which is poised to release the Matthew McConaughey AIDS drama "Dallas Buyers Club" on Nov. 1, and is starting production on "Fifty Shades of Gray" at the end of the month. Focus has been planning a big awards push for "Dallas" (McConaughey is being buzzed about as a shoe-in best actor nominee). Focus is also expected to make an awards push for "The Place Beyond The PInes" and its Alex Gibney WikiLeaks documentary "We Steal Secrets."
Prior to Comcast Corp.'s 2011 acquisition of Focus parent NBCUniversal, Focus' future was very murky. Universal Pictures had planned on putting the indie distrib on the sales block, but reversed course when Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, a well-known fan of independent film, said he wanted to keep the operation in the fold.
FilmDistrict's biggest hits at the box office -- "Olympus Has Fallen," which grossed just under $100 million, and the "Insidious" franchise, from U low-budget hitmaker Jason Blum -- point to the types of commercial fare Universal wants Focus to release. By comparison, Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," which Schamus produced, stands as the highest-grossing film for Focus, with $83 million domestically.
In addition to "Brokeback," many of Focus's films over the years have gone on to become critical and specialty box office hits, including "The Kids Are All Right," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Atonement," "Lost in Translation" and "Milk."
Like Universal, Focus has had a solid year so far at the box office, with successes including "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "The Wold'd End." Neither were major commercial hits, however.
Schamus is exiting Focus without a production deal with the company he helped launch. Instead, his only announced plans is to produce Lee's next film about the world of boxing during the 1960s and 1970s. Pic still is in development for Universal.
In a prepared statement, Schamus said: "It's been an amazing and joyous run at Focus, where our love of film has always been matched by our love and respect for our filmmakers and for each other. I wish Peter all the best with the next chapter, and look forward to working with my great colleagues at Universal on Ang's movie and many more to come."
2013 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Revamped Focus Features Led By Peter Schlessel Relocating To L.A.
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