THR's Studio Chief Summit: 5 Execs on Firings, Franchises and Reflections on a Wild Year
There's been a major change at Universal's specialty unit, Focus Features, with Peter Schlessel coming aboard to replace James Schamus. Donna, why did you decide to go in that direction?
LANGLEY: It started with the premise of really wanting to find a way to justify staying in a specialty business. We love the Focus label and the Focus brand. We were looking at a business model that just required some updating. The business model worked really well 10 years ago, when the company was started. And that was primarily selling off international rights and leveraging the downside risk of the movie that way. And so, every greenlight discussion would start with, "Well, this one really can't lose money."
So you want Universal's international operation to release more Focus titles overseas?
LANGLEY: We have a whole distribution and marketing system set up over there that could handle these kinds of movies, plus TV output deals that were desperate for that kind of material. We needed to cut some costs, for sure, but the structure of it is designed to actually protect the specialty business inside a bigger umbrella of what I call "specialty adjacent" and "elevated genre." That's my fancy-pants way of saying we need movies that make money and then we can take some fliers on movies that are a bit more risky.
Does it make you wince when the media says you are abandoning the art house business by getting rid of James Schamus?
LANGLEY: I understand how the sort of actions that we took could have resulted in that perspective and that point of view.
Are the studios still committed to the specialty business? What challenges face that sector of the industry?
MOORE: I don't think there is any secret sauce. We can all name 5, 10, 15, 20 small movies, specialty movies, that have done very well and they sound so attractive. But there are over 500 pictures released in a year, and there are 400 of them that no one can name.
GIANOPULOS: The challenge of marketing [a specialty film] in an increasingly fragmented media environment is more difficult than ever. That's where word-of-mouth comes in, and that's why you do see so many platform releases in that space. The hope is, once a movie is launched into the market, people will talk about it and embrace it. But that's the challenge.
Rob, you recently pushed back the release of Jack Ryan from Christmas to mid-January to make room on Dec. 25 for The Wolf of Wall Street. How much control does the filmmaker have when that happens?
MOORE: You're always trying to find a way that everybody is happy. But it's complicated. And if you try and communicate that in terms of how realistic you're being about a movie and what it could be, that's when people can get their feelings hurt.
HORN: It's an issue if everybody wants July 10. But we just have to navigate those waters.
MOORE: Like I said, the analytical, practical part of it is lost at times in the filmmaking creative process, where they just want to feel like you believe in their movie.
Speaking of release dates, a big Valentine's Day showdown is set for Feb. 13, 2015, when Universal's Fifty Shades of Grey opens against Fox's The Longest Ride, based on a Nicholas Sparks book. Donna and Jim, what are your thoughts?
LANGLEY: We've always had a thesis about Fifty Shades of Grey, and we really do believe -- and I believe as a woman -- it's a love story. It's a fractured love story, it's a tragic love story, but it's a love story. We're hoping for the best, and we've planned for the worst, in all honesty. It's not an expensive film to make. We believe that we've got the right actors playing the parts. And you know, to our earlier point about how [event pics] are created, they come in all different shapes and sizes. I do believe that this is a destination event for women.
GIANOPULOS: I know you'd love to see a discussion of whose book is bigger. Nicholas Sparks is certainly a literary phenomenon. I'm very confident about the movie. I think it's silly for anyone to say, "OK, we're staying [on that release date]," or "We're not moving," or any of that. You see how films develop. You see how the calendar develops. You see what opportunities develop. The reality is, both of those movies could succeed on that same day.
Considering Universal is owned by Comcast, a cable giant, could Fifty Shades debut simultaneously on VOD and in theaters? This could be a perfect opportunity.
GIANOPULOS: I think that's a great idea.
LANGLEY: We're not looking at Fifty Shades of Grey as something that women will have a hard time getting themselves into the theater for. I think they're going to go in groups to maybe protect themselves. The book started as a thing that people were embarrassed to read, and then it became airport reading or beachside reading or poolside reading.
MOORE: There is one big potential issue -- the rating. If it were my movie, and it ended up where you had a situation where you're going to have an NC-17 movie or an R-rated movie, that's when your question becomes a particularly compelling one.
LANGLEY: I don't think that exhibition is excited about having something like that as NC-17. And it's certainly not the intention.
HORN: The NC-17 rating was designed for a reason, but it has not been embraced. It's box-office death.
BERNARD: There should be a PG-15. I've always said that, you know? It would eliminate a lot of the problems.
How important is it for you to have a movie in the awards race?
BERNARD: It's incredibly important for us, and when we buy movies, or make them, we have that in mind. With Blue Jasmine, we saw that in the long run.
Are you resentful that the major studios are back in the Oscar race in a big way?
BERNARD: I think to have all these movies now from the studios as well as the independents excites the moviegoing public. And so I think it really helps in getting people off their butts again to start to go to the movies.
GIANOPULOS: Part of it is, yes, the prestige and a lot of it is about having movies that wouldn't otherwise get that kind of attention.
MOORE: There is no question that, as in the summer where you're looking for big tentpoles, you love the opportunity to just find great scripts with great filmmakers. And so this is a window in time where these movies have the best chance to be commercial successes.
HORN: It's always highly prestigious and exciting to have a picture as an Oscar contender. But when you think about what it really means, think about Hurt Locker beating Avatar [in 2010] -- it's almost like having a best animal contest where a giraffe wins over a water buffalo. What do they really have to do with one another? Nothing.
Do the six major studios -- Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal, Sony and Warner Bros. -- exist in a decade?
HORN: I would argue that the major studios will absolutely be here because the growth and change in our business has really been international. In fact, it gives the major studios a competitive advantage. It's hard to make movies with that kind of size. And the audiences have come to expect special effects that are perfect. Everyone's raving about China right now. There are 1.3 billion people [in China] but only 13,000 screens. They're building 10 a day.
Does that mean a China company will own a studio someday?
HORN: I wouldn't bet against them. They will not be denied.
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