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The 2013 edition of the American Film Market started on a bittersweet note Wednesday as Universal confirmed suspicions that Focus Features International will be out of business by the end of the year.
Marking the end of an era, FFI’s demise is part of an overall restructuring of the Universal-owned specialty label that consolidates operations in Los Angeles and puts FilmDistrict founder Peter Schlessel in charge. FFI, boasting 16 employees, was based in London, where co-president Thompson ran the show.
Focus Features, the mother ship, was headquartered in New York, housing the offices of former CEO James Schamus (who founded the company more than a decade ago with David Linde) and co-CEO Karpen, who also served as president of FFI. Karpen was offered to stay on, but he declined, saying he did not want to relocate his family to Los Angeles.
FFI has long been one of the biggest players on the global indie scene, handling a vast array of auteur-driven films. Over the years, the outfit handled international sales on behalf of numerous Focus Features titles, including many of Woody Allen‘s films, Lost in Translation and, more recently, Wes Anderson‘s acclaimed Moonrise Kingdom. Selling off foreign rights played a crucial role in raising financing to cover part of those films’ production budgets. Focus International also handled numerous third-party titles, providing a major revenue source for Focus Features.
“The broader question is whether the kind of high-end art house films that Focus was famous for have any kind of future,” said Alexander van Dulmen of Eastern European distribution group A Company. “Those films have a really hard time in the market at the moment.”
FFI’s AFM suite at the Loews is sure to become something of a curiosity factor. Karpen and Thompson weren’t available for comment on Wednesday. They had been informed in recent days, if not weeks, of the decision to close the London operation.
Universal insiders say going forward, Focus will leverage Universal’s international distribution system for certain titles. If needed, Focus could rely on third-party sales agents to handle other projects. Also, all films that were greenlighted by Focus will continue to be serviced and delivered to foreign buyers.
Schlessel is also widely respected in the indie film business, and is no novice in the ways of the foreign sales business.
“[For Universal] It’s all about cutting overhead and running as lean an operation as possible,” said one veteran U.K. film executive. “Universal probably figured it just didn’t make sense to keep [FFI] on the books.”
One British buyer who has done business with Focus for many years noted the European industry is not accustomed to the kind of corporate churn common among U.S. sales outfits.
“We are not used to having new sales companies sprout up and then disappear after five years; they tend to be longer-term and build up lasting relationships, which can’t just be replaced overnight,” he said. “Alison Thompson, Andrew Karpen and their team have done amazing things for this industry.”
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