Focus CEO Peter Schlessel on the Move to the Mainstream and the Studio's Future

Illustration by: Chris Kim

In his first interview since assuming the role in a shake-up one year ago, Schlessel explains the prestige label's move to mix mainstream ("I'm proud to have 'Insidious 3' ") with the more expected awards plays ('The Theory of Everything') as the midbudget movie finds a home

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Recently, former employees of Focus Features gathered at a New York sports bar to celebrate the end of summer -- and to dissect every move CEO Peter Schlessel has made since he replaced James Schamus a year ago. Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley had wanted the studio's storied prestige label (Brokeback Mountain, Lost in Translation) to change course and release a mix of awards titles and commercial movies. When Schamus wouldn't oblige, Universal brought in Schlessel, whose company FilmDistrict had been home to both the arty Drive and popcorn fare like Olympus Has Fallen.

Indie diehards vilified Universal and Schlessel, but even some of the Focus faithful who gathered in Chelsea have come to believe the strategy is not inherently flawed. Schlessel, 52, has begun to put his mark on Focus, filling his pipeline of a planned nine to 10 films a year (up from five to seven) with a mix of genre movies (Sinister) and, perhaps surprisingly, a healthy dose of prestige plays.

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"There were definitely arrows shot my way about whether I was killing the independent film business, but I think there was also hope that we would be aggressive in buying, whether a specialized movie or a wide-release movie," Schlessel tells THR in his first interview since assuming the job. " 'Independent' is really a financing mechanism. We're buying movies that are being put together outside of the studio system, and that's good for people who are making movies outside of the system. I am proud to have Insidious 3 on my release schedule, and I'm also proud to have the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, which did $98.9 million [domestically] on my watch at FilmDistrict."

Whereas specialty divisions once concentrated on low-budget Oscar bait while sibling labels made commercial films of all budgets, midrange movies largely have fallen off of studio slates. "There's a bifurcation in the market as the studios focus more and more on making tentpole films," says analyst Eric Handler at MKM Partners. "That leaves an opening for divisions like Focus."

Schlessel's record at Focus has been mixed. The January release That Awkward Moment, a Zac Efron romantic comedy he brought from FilmDistrict, grossed $26.1 million domestically. Ironically, one of his biggest missteps has been a Focus-type festival pickup: He paid $2.75 million at Sundance for Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here, which eked out only $3.6 million in theaters.

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The movies Schlessel has put in motion run the gamut from David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars (set for release Feb. 27) to London Has Fallen (Oct. 2). Focus 2.0 declines to talk budgets, but Schlessel won a bidding war for A Monster Calls, from The Impossible director Juan Antonio Bayona, and nabbed the Jesse Owens biopic Race. Both are slated for 2016 and will not be indie-style platform releases. Schlessel also was in the mix for Story of Your Life, a sci-fi epic starring Amy Adams that went for $20 million to Paramount, and he wanted Shane Black's The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, but Warner Bros. won. "Peter and his team are doing a good job working toward a future Focus slate that offers greater variety, including specialty films, genre and more," says Langley. "We are excited to see that new mandate come to fruition starting next year."

Focus remains a player in the specialty space, even if on a smaller scale. "I am embracing the iconic part of what Focus is and hopefully will continue to be," says Schlessel. "We have The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl and Kate Winslet's period drama A Little Chaos, all of which are traditional specialized movies." Longtime Universal partner Working Title, which produced Everything and Danish Girl, will continue to provide prestige fare.

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Although big Universal has taken over Fifty Shades of Grey, Schlessel is expected to get a long leash on future projects. He convinced Langley to set up Focus' offices in FilmDistrict's old Santa Monica digs, some 3,000 miles from Focus' previous home on New York's Bleecker Street. He oversees a staff of about 80, half from FilmDistrict. Slowly the cultures are blending as they prepare to release Everything on Nov. 7 and Black Sea, the final title from the Schamus era, Jan. 23. "I don't want to pretend it's easy," says Schlessel. "Very few companies have done both specialized movies and wide releases."


Focus' Year at the Box Office

Dallas Buyers Club

That Awkward Moment

Bad Words

The Signal 

Wish I Was Here

The Boxtrolls


Kill the Messenger

✽ Schlessel titles
* Still in release

Source: Box Office Mojo