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James Schamus' Life on the Film Festival Circuit (Q&A)

James Schamus
AP Photo/David Azia

The Focus CEO looks back on 22 years of adventures -- from selling "Walking and Talking" to Harvey Weinstein to stumbling across Terrence Malick when he least expected it.

James Schamus has easily spent two years' worth of his life (if not more) at film festivals and knows them from every angle -- buyer, seller, screenwriter, cinephile. He and producer Ted Hope formed pioneering indie production company Good Machine in 1991, and the grand tour was on: Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto. Good Machine and its distribution partners deftly used festivals to launch a string of award-winning titles, including The Ice Storm (released by Fox Searchlight) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (released by Sony Pictures Classics).

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A decade ago, Good Machine folded into Focus Features, which has remained a major festival presence with films including Brokeback Mountain and Atonement. But doing business on the circuit isn't all glamour.

From a smoke-filled flight to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 1989 to a 3 a.m. food fight at the Cafe Majestic in Cannes years later, the 51-year-old shares what life is really like in what he calls the 'zone.'

THR's Complete Toronto 2011 Coverage

When not on the road, the Focus CEO lives with his wife in New York near Columbia University, where he teaches film theory and history.

The Hollywood Reporter: What do you remember about Rotterdam, your first festival?

James Schamus: I'm allergic to cigarettes, and on the plane there, I was in the row in front of the smoking section, which was basically like having 40 people blowing smoke at me. But Rotterdam was a blast. It's one of the youngest and hippest public audiences out there. The other great thing was a stall a couple blocks from the main theater where they sold herring sandwiches with raw onion. I was amazed people would actually talk to me after I ate them.

THR: What was the first film you took to a festival?

Schamus: The first film I ever produced was Raul Ruiz's avant-garde opus The Golden Boat, which went to Toronto in 1990. It had its first screening at the Varsity in a room that felt like a broom closet. I believe our world premiere was at 1 p.m. -- not exactly a gala. An acquisitions executive from one of the bigger American companies was there, and while I don't think he actually pushed me on the way out -- he was actually far more polite -- he made his way out very quickly.

THR: What has been your best travel experience getting to a festival?

Schamus: Going to Rotterdam in early January 1991. It was the beginning of the first Gulf War, and the paranoia over a Scud missile attack was intense. Nobody wanted to fly, and there were literally only three or four of us on the plane. It was a KLM flight, and we all got invited to first class to hang out and drink champagne with the crew. It was hilarious.

THR: What was one of your hairiest moments?

Schamus: It was the year Ted and I were selling Walking and Talking at Sundance in 1996. The first screening was at 10 p.m. on Friday night at the Egyptian, and we'd invited all the big buyers. That morning, Ted, Nicole Holofcener [the director] and I were booked on the 7:15 a.m. Delta flight out of New York with the 35mm reels in hand. We were on the tarmac, and a father and daughter got into such a huge fight they had to be removed from the plane, so we pulled back into the gate. A storm was coming, and most flights were canceled. We got into the terminal, and Ted and I pulled out our mobiles -- which at that time looked like Army radio phones -- and we started calling around trying to figure out how to get a plane. I finally reached a private pilot who could fly out of JFK, and I paid for it with my credit card. It cost $17,000, which was way more money than we had. There weren't enough seats on the tiny prop plane, so I remained behind and stayed on the phone with the pilot's wife the entire time.

THR: Did Ted and Nicole make it in time for the screening?

Schamus: Eventually they landed in Salt Lake City at 10 p.m. after having to refuel, and of course I was talking to [then Sundance festival director] Geoff Gilmore on the phone, telling him what was going on. Every distributor in America was sitting there fuming and pissed off. They knew they couldn't leave and risk losing out. The screening started at midnight, and I stayed up and closed a deal with Harvey [Weinstein] by early the next morning.

THR: What is your favorite festival deal?

Schamus: The most fun by far was showing up in Berlin with Ang's Lee's The Wedding Banquet in 1993. We tried to find a sales agent, but everyone declined. So that's how Good Machine International got started. We sat in the hotel for four days and met with distributors from every country, and we were able to sell Ang's movie all over the world. It ended up being bought in the U.S. by Tom Rothman, who was then at Goldwyn.

THR: How do you keep your bearings during a festival?

Schamus: I will take off a morning or an afternoon and get out of the zone. I have crazy memories of going to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and standing in front of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate for 15 minutes, and I look over and standing next to me is Terrence Malick. In Cannes, I try to find somebody's apartment that I can cook at. I always go shopping in the marche and try to make a meal and set up a whole space outside the business. I'll try to go to at least two or three movies that I know there's no way in hell I'll be involved with from a business perspective. You have to indulge your cinephilic needs.

THR: Any insane late-night escapades?

Schamus: Ted and I were at the Cafe Majestic in Cannes with people from a Hal Hartley film at about 3 a.m., and an entire filet mignon had been wedged under the table to keep it from wobbling. Later, Ted pulled the piece of meat out, and somehow there was a food fight, and I think he hurt his ankle.

THR: What will Focus do in Toronto this year?

Schamus: We're taking Pariah, which premiered at Sundance. The film is from Dee Rees, an amazing emerging director, and we'll use Toronto to reintroduce the film as awards season begins.

Focus Features