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Q&A: James Schamus

The Focus Features CEO is THR's Indie Icon of the Year

In an age when the specialty business is under full-fledged attack, with major labels being killed by their corporate parents, Focus Features stands firm. Not only has its CEO James Schamus greenlighted some of the best films in recent history, from "Milk" to "Brokeback Mountain," but he has managed the Universal Pictures division to profitability at the same time. A writer-producer whose collaboration with Ang Lee has led to films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Lust, Caution," he also is a professor and scholar who has published a well-regarded book on the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. For his work as an executive, artist and his ongoing commitment to specialty film, The Hollywood Reporter has named him its Indie Icon of the Year. He recently spoke with THR's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.

The Hollywood Reporter: Paramount Vantage is gone. Picturehouse and Warner Independent are gone. Miramax is effectively gone. What assurances have you been given by Universal that Focus has a long-term future?

  How Focus' 23 releases fared domestically, 2007-09

1. "Coraline," $75 mil (2/09)
2. "Burn After Reading," $60 mil (9/08)
3. "Atonement," $51 mil (12/07)
4. "Balls of Fury," $33 mil (8/07)
5. "Milk," $32 mil (11/08)
6. "9," $32 mil (9/09)
7. "Hot Fuzz," $24 mil (4/07)
8. "Eastern Promises," $17 mil (9/07)
9. "The Hitcher," $16 mil (1/07)
10. "Evening," $12 mil (6/07)
11. "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," $12 mil (3/08)
12. "Away We Go," $9 mil (6/09)
13. "A Serious Man," $9 mil (10/09)
14. "Pirate Radio," $8 mil (11/09)
15. "In Bruges," $8 mil (2/08)
16. "Taking Woodstock," $7 mil (8/09)
17. "Hamlet 2 ," $5 mil (8/08)
18. "Lust, Caution," $5 mil (9/07)
19. "Talk to Me," $5 mil (7/07)
20. "Sin Nombre," $3 mil (3/09)
21. "The Limits of Control," $427,000 (5/09)
22. "Thirst," $319,000 (7/09)
23. "Reservation Road," $122,000 (10/07)

Source: Nielsen EDI

James Schamus: It does feel like I'm getting the only-guy-still-employed award! But it's not the case. You take a longer view: The independent sector has always been in flux, going back to Cinecom, through Orion to Artisan and October and Circle and Vestron -- various iterations of specialized divisions -- you are always riding that 50-foot wave. The idea that sprung up in the last few years, that there was some kind of stable independent business that evaporated over the past year, is nonsense.

THR: That doesn't quite answer the question.

Schamus: All I can do is answer you with concrete facts. Here's a concrete fact: I have been greenlighting movies regularly going into 2010 and now we'll be having a whole new wave of greenlights in 2011 to announce, with as much frequency and as many resources as I have had in my entire career. I've got a pretty big slate already for next year, and we're just getting revved up: Everything from a Noah Baumbach movie starring Ben Stiller ("Greenberg") to a crazy documentary called "Babies." We just wrapped shooting two of the biggest movies in our history: "The American" with George Clooney from Anton Corbijn; and Kevin MacDonald's new movie with Channing Tatum ("The Eagle of the Ninth"). We just started shooting a new movie ("It's Kind of a Funny Story") with Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts and Keir Gilchrist, with two of the brightest lights of the new generation of American filmmaking, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

THR: Specifically, have you been given assurances that Focus will continue?

Schamus: I get those assurances every single day. Every day. It is more than business as usual when we're out there announcing not just new development but we're hiring (directors and actors). Believe me, if I weren't getting those assurances, why would I be putting my neck out there the way I am?

THR: Former Universal Pictures co-chairman David Linde was a major ally at the studio. What sort of relationship do you have with your new bosses, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley?

Schamus: What can I tell you (is), she just spent two hours in my office this afternoon. We are locked and loaded. Already in the last month they've been great bosses. I was able to greenlight "Jane Eyre" with Cary Fukunaga (directing). This is our job here at Focus.

THR: Have you met with the guys at new NBC Universal parent Comcast?

Schamus: No. Focus Features is just a footnote on what will be the annual report of those combined companies. (But) I'm happy to report that if next year's footnote is like every footnote we've provided over the last eight years, it will be a profitable one. I still look at this as a business, and we continue to stress, without being pathologically cheap, we really take our responsibility seriously because we know that the kind of freedom we are able to give our directors is directly related to the kind of discipline we bring to the business.

THR: What recent change in the business has most impacted your work? You're forced to spend more money on marketing.

Schamus: The past couple of years, we've managed to extend discipline into the marketing.
What that means is, it's tougher. We have to be that much more specific in our spend. We put a lot more creativity and a lot more research and a lot more thinking into drilling down the specific, specialized core audience that we need to deliver before we grow it out. We don't have to spend as much as other people, but we have to work twice as hard.

THR: Give us a couple examples.

Schamus: "9" is the perfect example of a film that we knew from Day 1 was not a mainstream movie. It's a truly independent vision. I knew we had to reach -- I had shorthand for it: I said to my team, "If we try to sell this as a mainstream animated movie, we'll waste tons of money and we won't actually get the people who are desperate to see this film and will truly enjoy it." The shorthand I used was two words: "Austin, Texas." By that I meant people who are really motivated, savvy fans, but not unthinking and are not uncritical. They want to know we're treating them seriously. Primarily male, but there is a real connection to a female fan base also, in this alternative culture. They're big and they're combustible. If they know that they're being treated with respect and not just being sold to, and that they can own part of the process, they will adopt the work of your artist and make it their own and they will help bring the word to other people. We were able to release "9" on an extraordinarily disciplined P&A budget, and PG-13 animation is as close as it gets to a suicide note, but the negative cost on the film was very disciplined, and obviously we had enormous talent helping produce the film (Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov) and a young visionary (Shane Acker) making his first movie. We brought to the marketing what those guys were bringing to the movie.

THR: Some recent releases have been disappointments -- "Sin Nombre," "Away We Go." How are you protected for films like that? Did you have partners?

Schamus: "Sin Nombre" was a good example of a partnership with the international production group at Universal. So we had direct distribution in places like Mexico, where the film did well -- although we had to pull the release because of swine flu. We co-financed it with (Korea-based) CJ Entertainment and the film did $11 million in Korea. It was a straight partnership. We like to find the gems and be flexible to take advantage of the partnerships we have and the people we work with.

THR: "Coraline" was your biggest hit of the year.

Schamus: That was a partnership with Laika Entertainment, which is a company founded by (Nike founder) Phil Knight and run by Travis Knight. It was the most mind-boggling filmmaking experience I've ever witnessed. It's so amazing. Phil had gotten it set up with Laika as an equity partner and they were looking for the right partnership for domestic and international and we went in and pitched very hard. Honestly, every time I went to Portland (where Laika is based), my head would spin. I don't make films that way, I don't have any animation experience, but also I don't have the personality. I would shoot myself after three days.

THR: Are you developing other animated projects?

Schamus: We would love to. We're not developing anything, but if there are slots -- a lot of this stuff has to do with the economics. We have the great benefit of being bundled into (Universal's) overall, jointly negotiated deal on the pay TV side. But there are limitations on how many docs or animation. The idea is that Universal is now into a huge partnership with (Illumination Entertainment executive and animation producer) Chris Meledandri; he's going to have a certain number of slots. If we can pick up an acquisition when there's an extra slot available, we'd certainly be open to it. But for the moment, we're not in the animation business.

THR: Are you looking for major financing?

Schamus: We already have an arrangement with Dresner. That runs for some time. Also, one reason why I'm still around to take this award is that we've been consistent from Day 1. While we are anchored in North America as a distribution company in a specialized sphere, we are an international company. We provide movies that we think are extremely valuable to the international marketplace. It means (that) sometimes we define ourselves out of business when someone offers domestic only and we miss opportunities, frankly. But we're looking at the prism of the international marketplace.

THR: Is the Dresner money an investment or a banking arrangement?

Schamus: Well, in this day and age, things are complicated practically, but it is a banking arrangement. We treat it as an investment.

THR: Going back to the independent sector at large, have things turned a page?

Schamus: A half billion dollars got sucked out of the independent sector. There's a saturation of product over the past two years that is now thinning out, thankfully. There were too many movies opening every Friday in the specialized sphere and it was too distracting. Not enough movies were able to find the breathing room to break out. Because we don't release too much -- I tend to release eight to 10 movies a year -- we can play footsie a bit, and a year's slate tends to be made up of a "Sin Nombre" or a "Thirst," all the way to a "Burn After Reading" or a "Coraline." So we have the luxury of being able to go wide and hard and also to have the patience to go long, slow and deep.

THR: How do you regard the current state of indie film from an artistic point of view? You're one of the very few people working in the business who actually know film history exceptionally well.

Schamus: Focus has a very specific place in film's cultural landscape. It's a place where voices from outside the mainstream speak, but they're speaking face-forward to the rest of the culture. Our zone is very specific. You take really original voices, but you're speaking the language that a lot of people can understand. My own taste often veers into the most obscure and heavily avant-garde around; I find that those films are to me inspirational and important and it's important that folks like me in the business engage and think and cherish avant-garde film.

THR: What impresses you today?

Schamus: A lot of the work that's getting done in the gallery video world. It's exciting -- Bill Viola, Katie Bennett. (But) where I sit, and where Focus sits, is in a very different place, taking artists like Gus Van Sant, who will never lose their independent streak, but when they're making a movie here are speaking a cinematic language that can be understood by an audience that will be interested. It doesn't have to be a mass audience. The line I use is, "The only way you know it's a Focus movie is if the vast majority of humanity is going to hate it!" We don't need for people to love us; what we do need is for enough of a more general public to get engaged at the level that is appropriate for the budget that we brought to bear on the movie. That's a reasonable demand to make on the filmmaker. If a filmmaker wants to spend $20 million to say what they need to say, then we need to say that movie needs to have a shot at having a conversation with an audience that can get the money back and give us enough money at the end of the year to send back to the corporate mothership so that they know it was worth doing, from a business point of view.

THR: Given the state of the business, are you having more conversations about what the $10 million version of a movie might be, versus the $20 million version?

Schamus: We've been having those conversations since we crawled. That's what we do. That's why we're still around. The bottom line is, if someone can make it for $10 million but they feel like making it for $20 million, they shouldn't be making it here anyhow.

THR: Do you have a budget ceiling for films?

Schamus: A lot of it is dictated by the demands of the story. We get that. It's a very fungible thing, but that's kind of the magic. If the setting is 1930s and 1940s England and it's a sweeping love story that also includes battle scenes, that's "Atonement." You're not going to sit around and say, "You'll make it for $15 million because my computer says...." You've got to let things breathe.

THR: Do you have greenlight authority up to a certain budget?

Schamus: No. There is absolutely no magic number or threshold. But no one's ever stopped a greenlit movie. It's never happened. And one reason is, I've never gotten that virus that (makes you say), "Oh, I can do a studio movie better than those guys can!" I'm just not interested. That's not what I do for a living, and it's not what I should be doing. Once you start doing that, you're not doing this.

THR: Give us a filmmaker that you're really interested in at the moment.

Schamus: Steve McQueen is one of the greatest artists ever. "Hunger" is not for the masses but is an austere, great work of art. And to say to Steve, "Here's Fela Kuti, here's a guy to nash wits with" (on "Fela," the upcoming Focus film about the Nigerian afrobeat pioneer). Steve is really committed to making a movie that a much larger audience will be there for; but I also know that he's going to get to that audience in a completely original way. This guy is a take-no-prisoners artist, and that's exciting. When you put those things together and you've got my job behind the desk and suddenly Steve McQueen says, "Yeah, let's try," that makes my day.

THR: What doesn't make your day? What was your worst day on the job?

Schamus: One, I tend not to have really bad days because I tend to accept defeat as part of my life; I think you have to. But I'd say probably this year, clearly the Monday after the release of "Taking Woodstock" because, honestly, my name is on that thing: I wrote it, I produced it, and I had to walk into a meeting on Monday -- we have meetings and everyone is invited; if you're an assistant, a coordinator, whoever you are, you can come into the video conference room in three cities -- and remember there was a lot more gossip back in August about the future of independent companies. I was delivering bad news, and I've got to take that bullet. On the other hand, that's part of why we do what we do, and I tell this to everyone at the company. Once a year, it's a ritual, I say to everyone at the company: "At the end of next year, if you have not done something that has completely and utterly failed, you should not be working here, because if you're not taking risks or trying stuff that hasn't been done before, then why work here? And don't worry about it. Everybody gets to fail -- just don't make a habit of it!" (Laughs.)

THR: Why did that movie fail?

Schamus: I don't know. Luckily I'm not a sociologist. We have our post-mortems, (but) I think it's often a big mistake to have them (quickly). I'd rather wait through the video release. Then people have real perspectives. Everyone at the company is invited and we talk about the challenges, how they were met, how they were not met, and what you learned. People are extremely honest, and everyone is listened to. It's part of the culture of the company. We really want to learn from each other and learn from our mistakes. But one of my mottoes is, "Don't learn too much from your mistakes in this business." People learn too much from their mistakes. It's like, "Oh, I made a frock movie or I made a period movie or I made a movie that was all women or I made a movie that doesn't work." Well, that one didn't work but maybe the next one will. In a weird way, you can learn too much and it can constrain you.

THR: What's the most interesting lesson you have learned on the job?

Schamus: More and more, if I think I'm dealing with someone who's responsible, somebody who is clear about what they want to accomplish and is connected in some way to other people, I've learned to trust talent. People always say, "Oh, you're a screenwriter, that must be really helpful when you're in script meetings with filmmakers." But no, actually, it's terrible. No one wants another writer on the movie. My job is head of the studio. Make that movie and sell it, that's what I should be doing.

THR: Do you give final cut to your filmmakers?

Schamus: A lot of them get it, a lot don't. It really depends. It's not automatic here, but go online and look at every DVD that's ever come out from Focus and you will never see a director's cut. Whether it's contractual or not -- and believe me, we are not shy about our opinions, and we're not a conveyor belt; we're partners -- I'm very proud of the fact that every director who has worked here has seen his or her work on the screen at the premiere.

THR: Do you have another project in the works with Ang Lee?

Schamus: I can't talk about the title, but I just this week started writing another screenplay.

THR: Is your new project an original or adaptation?

Schamus: It's kind of a weird mix of both. It's going back to the good old, tragic, suicidally depressing Ang!

THR: How lovely. How do you and Ang work together?

Schamus: I never work that closely with him in the writing process. But we definitely talk intently before I start writing. And then, once there's a draft done, it's very intensive again. This (movie) was totally me. I became enamored of something and we had long talks about why. Ang loves to ask the question, "Why?" Like, "Why are you interested in this?" Or, "Why is this character so...?" Once we've established that, I'll go off and write, and maybe he'll make it, maybe he won't. There's no contractual thing. This will be quite low budget.

THR: How do you write?

Schamus: Basically, wherever, whenever and however. I can write by getting up early or staying up late or going to the country and taking a day off. "Lust, Caution" I wrote literally between meetings at Cannes.

THR: Does being so busy impact the quality of the work?

Schamus: It sure can, sometimes. It has more to do with how the tenor of the busyness is affecting your stress and your ability to imagine and have the space. For me, most of the work is done taking walks, or looking out the window, or sitting on the subway. Before I put finger to keyboard, you have to have that reverie and freedom. If you're too crowded, if there's too much stress, too much going on, it can have a negative impact. On the other had, there's truth to that phrase, if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know. When you get in a groove, it's actually incredibly fun to be able to literally swivel the chair around and just go, "Wow, it's happening, I can feel it!" But in general, I try to hide.

THR: Do you find your job stressful?

Schamus: It's part of getting older, I think. I have made a concerted effort to pass this on to the extended family at Focus -- especially this past year, when things have been very stressful. I told everyone, "It's my job to absorb the stress." I'll work it off, I'll go to the gym, I'll hang out with the dogs and my kids, whatever. But let me take it, because in a weird way, what's the worst that could happen? I'll get fired? I don't know. So let me take on that burden and I'll work out the stress, work out the kinks. Look, I face the same business issues that we all do, in particular, the DVD business going where it's gone. I'm not immune to any of this stuff. All the chatter out there can have a real negative impact on people. So I try to keep a Zen attitude toward all of it. I have to say, if you come by the office here, we are still, on a daily basis, really having fun. And the work shows it. For example, the trailer for "A Serious Man," or the trailer for "Babies," you can't do that unless you're enjoying yourself. Everyone around you is telling you the world is falling apart, (but) we're having another profitable year. We love the movies we're working with.

THR: How much input did you have on "A Serious Man," given that the Coens are very autonomous?

Schamus: With the Coen brothers, I basically was the guy standing by the door and they walk by and I get a fantastic tip. But they drop a great tip in my hand. Then the real work with them begins, because we have to make them comfortable with the sometimes crazy direction we take the campaign and the approach to it.

THR: Were you disappointed by how that film did?

Schamus: Oh my God, absolutely not! This is important for you to hear: If you had read that script and you had my job, what do you think it would have done? And with that cast? We could have made that one even before they made "Burn After Reading." They came in at the same time and it was about who was available when, blah blah blah. So here's the Coen brothers; we just got offered "Burn After Reading," one of our most successful collaborations ever, and here's "Serious Man." The thing with these guys is, they give you a budget and they always come in on budget or under. They always make their days. They're not jerks, they're really nice people, and you just had a huge success with them, and we have our international partnerships in territories where we believe this film will work. Like, we just released it with our colleagues at Universal Pictures in the U.K. and Australia, and it's doing phenomenally well, and the budget's incredibly low with these guys. So there's no sweat. I love that movie so much. For me, to even vaguely be associated with "A Serious Man" just puts a -- pardon the French -- you-know-what-kind-of-eating grin on my face. It's absurd how much fun we had and it's a profitable film.

THR: Is there a filmmaker out there that you would not work with again?

Schamus: In this business, you never say never again. I will take any amount of punishment. Artists are people who are fine-tuned. And that means they often feel stuff more intensely and they don't filter. Not that that excuses bad behavior. I really think that people should treat each other humanely and with respect and that is a real part of what keeps our company together. But the one thing I really have a hard time with is when the disrespect goes to people on my team, if it's an assistant or a publicist or something like that. I have a shorthand with my wife when she asks how my day was and I say, "Oh, there was a little behavior today."

THR: What do you do when you're not working?

Schamus: I cook a lot for my kids. I try to make at least two to three meals a week. That's really important. I don't think I've had a business dinner more than once a month maybe in the last three years. I don't do business lunches. I think I've had two in the last three months. Oh, and I'm writing a new book! I just got the contract. It's building on a talk I gave in London called "My Wife is a Terrorist: Lessons in Storytelling from the Department of Homeland Security." And it's basically an introduction to contemporary literary, cinema and cultural studies by way of a close reading of my wife's (novelist Nancy Kricorian) homeland security file, page after page of blacked-out, redacted text. I go to everyone from Pudovkin and Hitchcock to Paul Greengrass to Derrida and Foucault to Jenny Holzer, the history of abstract expressionism, so it's like this crazy, fun, really accessible romp through the contemporary intellectual landscape. I'm writing it for undergraduates and a more general audience. I really want it to be entertaining.