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How Focus Features Rediscovered Its Knack for Making Award-Winning Films

The team behind this year's breakout doc 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' and Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' talks to The Hollywood Reporter about how the Focus Films company lost — and found again — its specialty focus.

Nearly three years ago, in February 2016, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley decided that her studio’s specialty division, Focus Features, needed to, well, refocus. Created in 2002, the unit, known for Oscar winners like The Pianist and Brokeback Mountain, had taken a detour into genre movies, giving their artier fare short shrift, with less-than-stellar results. So, explains Langley, “We all made a decision to redouble our efforts in the specialty field and not confuse the Focus brand or the marketplace with trying to do elevated genre films.” She urged Focus to concentrate “on director-led films that have strong vision and original voices,” with an eye toward films that could play globally.

Peter Kujawski, who had worked at Focus selling international film rights earlier in his career before becoming managing director of Universal Pictures International Productions, overseeing acquisitions and local-language films abroad, was named Focus chairman, and UPIP was absorbed into Focus’ charter. Robert Walak joined him as president and Jason Cassidy came aboard as president of marketing. They were joined by Abhijay Prakash, who served as COO before moving to DreamWorks Animation in October, 2017.

With its own domestic distribution and access to Universal’s international infrastructure, the re-energized Focus got back to basics — picking up Oscars for films like The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl and, most recently, Darkest Hour while cultivating audiences for auteur-driven movies like Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

This year, thanks to films like the breakout documentary in Morgan Neville’s heartwarming Mister Rogers bio, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and Spike Lee’s provocative BlacKkKlansman, Focus currently leads the studio specialty labels in cumulative domestic gross with about $150 million. And with its international business — which includes foreign distribution on films like Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird and local-language hits like the Spanish comedy Campeones (Champions) — it has grossed nearly $500 million worldwide.

That figure may be overshadowed by Universal’s mega-grossers like its Fast and the Furious and Jurassic World franchises, but, explains Langley, besides contributing to the studio’s overall profitability, Focus is building up a library of titles that provides revenue on an ongoing basis. “If you look at the history of Focus titles over the years, like The Big Lebowski, they are big drivers of our library,” she says. And when it comes to awards, Focus’ films “create a halo effect as well, given that these are movies we generally look to to generate the majority of the awards conversation. Not to say that the main slate doesn’t do that, too, but with Focus that is a big piece of their core strategy.”

The Focus team, which oversees the domestic release of their films themselves, also works closely with the studio’s international distribution operation, Universal Pictures International, headed by London-based president of distribution, Duncan Clark. “Focus is our partner. It’s very much a joint venture between Peter’s team and my team — we’re all film mad,” he says. Combining Focus’ titles with those from the main studio, Clark continues, adds up to “an eclectic range of films that can really inspire my local teams. It also puts on a nice glow whenever Universal is in a trade environment, be it CineEurope or CineAsia, to be able to say you’ve got a Jurrasic World coming and a Fast and Furious and also to reel into these classy, quality films. They are not always a big money play, though in the case of some of these titles, substantial sums of money were made. Darkest Hour made over $100 million for us internationally.”

Universal additionally profits from Focus’ forays into local-language productions like the Spanish comedy Campeones, about a basketball coach who takes on a team of mentally disabled players, which made more than $22 million in Spain and Latin America, and the Russian comedy I Lose Weight, which collected $11.8 million in its home country. Such films, says Clark, “put us in the local conversation and keep our eye on local talent. Most of our managers around the world love to have local-language films to supplement the slate.”

Focus benefits from its place within the larger Universal family. Participant Media — one of the partners in Amblin Partners, in which Universal has a stake — often brings projects to Focus like the upcoming On the Basis of Sex, about the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the sci-fi thriller Captive State. Similarly, the British-based Working Title, which has a production deal with Universal, sees many of its films, like The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and the upcoming costume drama Mary Queen of Scots, go out through Focus.

Tim Bevan, who co-chairs Working Title with Eric Fellner, notes, ‘“Focus had lost a little of its direction, but I think Donna, along with Peter Kujawski and Robert Walak have taken it back to what it was originally: a proper specialty division that does some genre movies but really knows how to do the specialty movies well. For us, our powerhouse is in the U.K. and the Western European countries, but then we need to be treated in a more boutique way, with tender, loving care, when it comes to the U.S. release, and these guys have done us proud. We seem to be supplying them a movie each year that their new team has distributed brilliantly.”

Focus also has earned the loyalty of some pretty hard-to-please filmmakers. “We had a great time,” Paul Thomas Anderson says of his experience working with Focus on Phantom Thread, even though he warned the Focus team in late spring of 2017 that the film wouldn’t be ready for its year-end release until Thanksgiving, complicating marketing plans and awards campaigning. While Anderson held off choosing a title for the film until it began to take shape in the editing room, he says that “Focus was endlessly patient.”  When he proposed 70mm screenings, he feared the team would roll their eyes, but, he says, “Focus was so supportive, it really felt we were attacking something together.”

Recalling the excitement that broke out in the Focus offices when Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread scored multiple Oscar nominations, Anderson adds, “They’re loving what they’re doing, and they’re pushing the place to be a spot where filmmakers want to bring their babies and help get them into the theaters and seen by people.” 

Lee reports he had a similarly positive experience working with Focus on BlacKkKlansman, which producers Jason Blum and Jordan Peele, who both have deals with Universal, brought to the studio’s specialty films division. “They let me do my thing, I have no complaints,” Lee attests. That included agreeing to his request that the movie’s release be timed to the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Despite the old industry prejudice that black-themed movies don’t attract audiences overseas, Focus’ foreign haul for the film amounted to $39 million, approaching the $48.6 million the movie collected domestically. After it debuted at Cannes, where the film won the grand prize, BlacKkKlansman went on to gross $10 million in France and another $8 million in Europe.

“Spike Lee has a certain auteur footprint — he’s had it for many, many years — but this film reinvigorated it,” says Clark. Adds Lee, “The reason why is that this film resonates. What I try to tell people is that the rise of the right is not just peculiar to the United States. The rise of the right is global.”

One way Focus has cultivated audiences for its movies, helping them to break out of all the surrounding clutter, is to create what its marketing team calls conversations around each film. Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s new film about the dangers of gay conversion therapy, is the latest case in point. In making the movie, the filmmakers reached out to GLAAD, which advocates for accurate representation of LGBTQ people in the media. The organization in turn offered its notes on the project and brought in experts on conversion therapy to meet with producers. It then worked with Focus on the film’s release, enlisting celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Alyson Stoner to spread word about the film among their social media followers.

“Focus Features does have a legacy of promoting LGBTQ stories,” says GLADD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, pointing to films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk. “With Boy Erased, we did quite a bit of work with them. They wanted to get it right.

Says Langley, summing up the function that Focus serves for Universal, “The great benefit of a label like Focus is that it can act as a destination for a certain kind of film that could get easily lost on a studio’s main slate.”

Below, Kujawski, Walak and Cassidy sit down with THR and explore a new era at Focus that has seen THR‘s Distributor of the Year again churning out the sort of Oscar fare it was once famous for.

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What was the mandate you were given when you were put in charge of Focus?

PETER KUJAWSKI It was a twofold thing when Robert and I stepped in. Historically, Focus’ business model was films from great filmmakers run in a kind of classic indie way within the studio family, a domestic distribution company that has an international sales component that allowed them to mitigate risk by doing sales abroad. Donna [Langley] said, “Let’s do two things. Let’s calibrate Focus to return to the space making the best movies, working with the best filmmakers and focusing on quality first. And then, two, let’s calibrate the model to take swings and lean into success and put the movies out on a global basis very assertively. If you’ve got the wind in your sails, let’s really chase it to bigger levels of success.”

Does that mean instead of selling territory rights to local distributors, the movies would go through the Universal distribution apparatus?

KUJAWSKI Yes, I would point to something like Victoria & Abdul. That was one where we said, “Feels like a good specialty movie in the U.S., we really don’t know if it has a breakout potential,” but internationally, [with] Judi Dench playing Queen Victoria, we knew the U.K. number would be very robust and a lot of the major European territories would have real disproportionate upside. So that was a green light that we were able to chase based on international potential and then work really hard to create something that also worked here [domestically]. And there was a disproportionately strong international number on that movie. So when we go to a film festival or a market, we never have the conversation, “OK, what are all the territories that are left? Let’s just focus on the U.S.” The conversation is always, “What are all the territories left because if we’re going to do this, we want all the territories that are available.”

Were there choices you made that set the tone for what you wanted to do at Focus?

KUJAWSKI Early on, two days after we arrived in Berlin [in 2016], we watched the footage from Loving and that felt like, “Ah! That is squarely in the wheelhouse of what we want to do.” But at the same time we had already gotten involved both domestically and internationally in Atomic Blonde and knew that that made a ton of sense as a Focus movie based on who [director] Dave Leitch is as a filmmaker and the style he put into that film.

ROBERT WALAK It’s really just about working with great filmmakers and being agnostic when it comes to genre.

JASON CASSIDY That happened again at Toronto [this year]. We watched [Neil Jordan’s thriller] Greta. A lot of people could say that it’s not necessarily a Focus movie. But for us, it was because of Neil Jordan’s sense of awareness of the genre in which he was working and a playfulness with how he was pushing it.

KUJAWSKI It’s for that adult audience but it also has Chloe Grace Moretz, so hopefully we’ll bring in the younger female audience.

You’ve been buying films at markets, but not necessarily pursuing the latest hot festival film. Is that by design?

KUJAWSKI Historically at Focus, the attitude has always been that we make our movies for the most part and have relationships with filmmakers who like what we do and bring us their stuff early. We can buy, if we fall in love with something, but we don’t have to. [In the case of Asghar Farhadi’s] Everybody Knows [which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival], we put together a deal to partner on the film in Spain at Cannes the prior year. We didn’t see the [finished] movie until it got to Cannes [this year], but we were very aware of the movie and were ready to buy it should we like it as much as we anticipated. And so we did.

WALAK That’s what happens when you’re flanked by UTA [which was repping the movie] at a screening.

In competing for worldwide rights, you’re going up against new players like Netflix. Are they distorting the market?

KUJAWSKI Honestly, hand on heart, it is great that Netflix is out there pumping a ton of money into the specialty film ecosystem. Being an indie producer is not the easiest thing in the world, so if you’ve got a new source of revenue, it means more people creating great movies, and we’re going to have the opportunity to get involved and in business with the ones that fit us best. There’s always going to be someone trying to distort the marketplace through big buys — whether it was Harvey [Weinstein] 10 years ago at Sundance or any number of people who’ve recently tried to get into the specialty landscape in an assertive way. For us, it keeps going back to the belief that what we do when we have a movie is different and special and remains inimitable because of how we tie into the Universal ecosystem.

What led you to acquire and date Won’t You Be My Neighbor? even before it played Sundance?

CASSIDY While [director] Morgan [Neville] was in post, starting to cut it, he came in and talked to us about it, and, honestly, the analysis was no more sophisticated than: One, We have no idea what this is going to actually end up becoming, but; two, we love Mister Rogers; and three, Morgan is as good as it gets in making movies like this. And we put it in summer because there is a history of docs owning a little real estate at that time. Amy did it a couple of years before. Our conversations at that point were, “Who knows? We might be sitting on a doc that could get up to $3 [million] or $4 million at the box office.” Then Morgan showed us the cut and that was the first moment of, “Oh this is really special, the emotional connection of this movie is very, very real.”

WALAK Then, at Sundance we saw the emotional response that the audience had to it. During the Q&A, people couldn’t really get their questions out because they were so choked up by the film.

How about the decision to release BlacKkKlansman in August? That initially met with some skepticism.

CASSIDY Spike [Lee] felt really strongly that this movie should be on the anniversary of Charlottesville, August 11. And we all said, “Done, let’s talk about [a debut in] Cannes.” Another piece of it was our poster — not the obvious studio choice to have a poster with a Klan hood on it, and that came from Spike’s idea. So we said, “Let’s lean into what Spike thinks, let’s be bold with it.” And it worked.

Why is Focus handling the Downton Abbey movie? It would seem to have enough name recognition to go through Universal itself.

KUJAWSKI We’ve got such a direct line of access to that audience through our existing relationships with other movies that there was really no moment of conversation around that. NBCUniversal’s International Studios bought [Downton producer] Carnival some time ago and have had Downton as a hit, and all of us have been involved getting the movie up and running. On the franchise and brand level, all of us are putting our full weight behind Downton.

WALAK It’s the great heritage movie that we have on our slate.

How important are the Oscars for your business?

CASSIDY There’s no doubt that it’s an important part of what we do, but we’ve done pretty well so far by saying to ourselves that you’re never going to engineer an Oscar movie or an Oscar win. It’s just sort of too crazy and unpredictable in terms of what’s going to be the dominant conversation that drives a movie all the way across the finish line. Our key ethos when we’re sitting in the green-light room is, “Is it great, and do we love it?” It has to cross that bar before we start to run the rest of the process. The second we get on the path of trying to chase the thing that feels like it’s the Oscar play, you get lost in it.

WALAK You jinx it somehow if you do that.

What’s the ideal release pattern for your movies?

KUJAWSKI It varies. The old-school independent rollout has been from four to eight to 100 theaters. We changed that and flipped it on its head. With BlacKkKlansman, we went with 1,500 screens right out the gate. The Beguiled went from four theaters to about 900 theaters within a two-week span. With Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, we didn’t think about it like it a documentary. We thought, “Wow, this is a great movie, so emotional and it just gets the audience talking,” and so we went out to almost 900 screens by the fifth weekend. We try to create a dialogue around each movie so people aren’t just seeing the movie but are really talking about the issues that are at play in the movie. Boy Erased is a great example. We launched our first podcast, called UnErased, with the filmmakers, and it’s now in the top 10 on iTunes. We created our first Facebook Watch with BlacKkKlansman with experts talking about the culture impacting African-American films.

Why get involved in local-language movies abroad?

CASSIDY Campeones is a monster hit in Spain, so there’s a handful of residual effects from that movie. It allows our partners at [Universal Pictures International president] Duncan [Clark]’s group to penetrate that market in a much deeper way. On a very tactical level, it also happens to be the Spanish submission for the Oscars this year, so that’s a nice little win. And when it comes to English-language remakes, if you’ve been the home-territory partner on a film, you’re given the privileged position of being the first stop along the way.

So will we see a Focus channel on some streaming service in the future?

KUJAWSKI We’ll see what the future holds.


Mary Queen of Scots
Release date: Dec. 7, 2018
Working Title had a hit with 1998’s Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett, and Working Title co-chairman Tim Bevan says, “In doing that I learned about Mary Queen of Scots, same time, same age, and have been wanting to make that movie ever since.” Josie Rourke directs Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I.

On the Basis of Sex
Release date: Dec. 25, 2018
By virtue of its involvement in Amblin Partners, which has a Universal deal, Participant Media’s films often find a home at Focus. And Peter Kujawski says Mimi Leder’s drama about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, starring Felicity Jones, “is a perfect example of a movie that’s going to speak to an audience we know well.”

Todos Lo Saben (Everybody Knows)
Release date: Feb. 8, 2019
Focus is planning a limited release for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish-language movie, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as part of an extended family circle whose secrets are exposed during a particularly fraught wedding.

Captive State
Release date: March 29, 2019
Directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), it stars John Goodman and Vera Farmiga and is set in a futuristic Chicago that is occupied by aliens.

Untitled Downton Abbey Movie
Release date: TBA
Since Carnival Films, the British production company behind the hit costume drama, was acquired by NBCUniversal International Television in 2008, the feature found a natural home at Focus and, says Kujawski, “We are putting the full weight of the organization behind it.”

Release date: TBA
Focus acquired rights to Neil Jordan’s psycho-thriller, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz, at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, where it debuted.

The Dead Don’t Die
Release date: TBA
Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie comedy is the writer-director’s third film for Focus, after 2005’s Broken Flowers and 2009’s The Limits of Control.

The Mustang
Release date: TBA
French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre makes her directorial debut with this story of a convict who trains wild mustangs.

Release date: TBA
Jason Cassidy promises that Kasi Lemmons’ portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, starring Cynthia Erivo, will be “a vital conversation piece.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.