Focus gets a global makeover

Parent Universal merges units for int'l production, distribution, sales

Universal's Focus Features and its international sales arm Focus Features International are joining forces with Uni's international production division to create a new, merged entity that will take a global approach to the film business.

James Schamus will continue to steer the course as Focus Features CEO. Christian Grass, who joined Uni as its London-based president of international production in October 2007 to ramp up the company's international and local production efforts, will take on the new title of co-CEO of FFI. Andrew Karpen, president of Focus Features, will become president of the new entity.

Within the Uni family, Schamus and Grass already had begun to work together closely, particularly when it came to international distribution. So the move represents a reorganization that ties their fortunes together more tightly while providing the combined company with a more diversified portfolio.

Schamus and Grass will call upon the roster of top execs they already have in place to play similar roles in the merged company.

FFI's Alison Thompson will continue as president of international sales and distribution, overseeing the international sales organization, while John Lyons will continue as president of production at Focus, reporting to Schamus. Clare Wise will continue as senior vp production at FFI, reporting to Grass and concentrating on production and acquisitions in all territories outside of North America and the U.K.

Schamus explained the merger as a way of "extending the Focus brand while maintaining the mandates and initiatives of the two sides of the merger." Studios have been closing or scaling back their specialty divisions — Universal sold genre division Rogue Pictures to Relativity Media for $150 million last month — but Schamus emphasized, "This is not about cost savings, it's not about layoffs — there will be no layoffs — and it's not about the downturn in the economy."

Said Grass, "Basically, it makes for an overall stronger organization, which will have a much better, more complete offering for filmmakers from all over the world."

The new organization will bill itself as one-stop shopping for filmmakers interested in financing, producing, selling or distributing films, whether they are designed for local audiences or aiming for worldwide exposure.

Particularly when it comes to foreign distribution, the super-Focus will be able to offer a variety of options — from distribution through United Pictures International, Uni's foreign distribution arm, in one or more territories to the sale of territory distribution rights through FFI to some combination of the two.

In effect, the new structure underlines a working relationship that already exists. For example, Carlos Cuaron's new film "Rudo y Cursi," already a hit in Mexico, was produced by Uni's international production group through its deal with cha cha cha, the production company founded by directors Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro. FFI has been handling international sales on the title, which will have its U.S. premiere at Sundance on Friday and will be released stateside by Sony Pictures Classics.

Focus and the international production group also have worked on two films that will be released domestically by Focus: the thriller "Sin Nombre," from writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga, that will have its world premiere at Sundance on Sunday, and Park Chan-wook's vampire tale "Thirst," a co-production with CJ Entertainment. FFI also is distributing Gonzalez Inarritu's "Biutiful," starring Javier Bardem, a project developed with the international production group.

The international production group brings several other deals to the table. It recently boarded Pedro Almodovar's new "Broken Embraces" as a co-financier and will handle distribution in some territories while UPI distributes it in Latin America.

Under FFI, Grass and Wise will continue to oversee a three-year, first-look deal with Fernando Meirelles' company 02 Filmes in Brazil; the five-picture deal with cha cha cha in Mexico; an ongoing production partnership with producer Bill Kong and his Edko Films in Hong Kong; an overall deal with director Timur Bekmambetov's company in Russia; and an overall production partnership with producer Stephane Sperry's Liaison Films in France.

Focus already has at least seven titles lined up for domestic distribution in 2009, including Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" and the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man." Movies handled abroad by the new entity won't necessarily show up on Focus' domestic slate, but Schamus said it could lead to Focus adding one or two titles to its domestic lineup.

"We're not stuck with any one model," Schamus said. "We will be able to put together any blend (of distribution) that makes sense."

The combined grosses of films handled by Focus, FFI and Uni's international production arm amounted to more than $350 million worldwide in 2008.
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