Focus Features Chairman on How the Company Surged Despite Pandemic Shutdown

Creative Space -Peter Kujawski
Photographed by Carmen Chan

Daughter Violet and her younger sister, Coco, play alongside the family’s goldendoodle Alma, named after the character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 'Phantom Thread,' which Focus released in 2017. Peter Kujawski was photographed Jan. 21 in Los Angeles.

Peter Kujawski, the exec running NBCUniversal's specialty label, talks about his Sundance strategy and the financial and cultural results of leaning into PVOD amid the pandemic: It's "not cannibalizing one window to make room for another."

"It's the witching hour here," says Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski during a late-afternoon Zoom from his home office in Toluca Lake, as the tail of an indeterminate animal whizzes by. "This is when the dogs start to go crazy and then the children go crazy with the dogs and it just …," he trails off. Despite the daily dose of chaos — with two daughters under the age of 7, two dogs and a cat — the specialty label maven may have just wrapped his most productive and profitable back-to-back years ever with a 2020 slate that included Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always and the Dawn Porter-helmed doc The Way I See It ­­— all of which racked up impressive results on premium VOD.

Focus Features has thrived despite pandemic-shuttered theaters, as PVOD revenues more than made up for the reduced box office. At this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, Kujawski will launch Robin Wright's feature directorial debut, the wilderness drama Land, which Focus also financed (for more info, see page 40). And the label's acquisitions team also will be on the lookout, even if the 2021 slate is stocked with such films as Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho and Justin Chon's Blue Bayou. (Kujawski oversees a staff of 80 at Focus and co-oversees, along with Peter Levinsohn, another 60 employees at Universal Pictures Content Group.)

The Philadelphia native, who is married to Enough Said producer Stefanie Azpiazu, talked to THR about takeaways from last year's festival and why PVOD is "not cannibalizing one window to make room for another."

Last year, Focus both launched and bought movies at Sundance. What were the takeaways?

We went in with two movies. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we felt the conversation started immediately after, when the credits rolled and the Q&A happened. And we have been seeing that play out ever since. With Promising Young Woman, that movie is such a jolt. It is literally a visceral, physical reaction that happens to people while watching it. Getting to truly feel that and see the gasps and shocks [in a packed theater], you know you're sitting with something special. Then on the acquisitions front, if you looked at the list of filmmakers we’d love to be working with and hadn’t had the chance yet, Miranda [July]’s name was right at the top. So, we went in incredibly primed and anxious to see the movie and just loved it. We had gone into Sundance saying we absolutely have no need to buy a movie this year and only want to buy something if it hits a very high bar of loving it, and that happened [with Kajillionaire]. We knew we’d have something special when we started working with Miranda — and had no idea where it would head, obviously, but really got the best version of it I think as a result of the timing and the world that we got to put the movie into.

This year you'll launch Robin Wright's Land. What was the mindset behind acquiring that film as a presale?

We read the script going into Cannes 2019. It was one of those easy moments where everyone set down the script and we all had the same sense of emotion. Then everything became super solidified when we sat with Robin and we got to really talk to her about the movie at length. We felt we were in incredibly good hands with Robin and that we could be additive to her process. And in a world where Sundance is going to be such a different version of itself this year, the impetus is always the same, which is giving audiences a chance to have a very human experience, an emotional journey with a movie, whether you're sitting in the Eccles Theater or watching a digital program with Sundance giving you that curatorial voice.

Are you expecting it to be a buyers’ or sellers’ market?

The titles that make that big splash, you’re going to see a lot of activity around and the type of big deals you’ve seen in the acquisitions marketplace over the past six months. That will continue, for sure. That said, one of the positive things that’s happening in the marketplace right now is there’s a lot of new business models and a lot of new competition. Certainly, we’ve got our competitors in the specialty and theatrical distribution marketplace, and we look at streamers and what they are doing. There’s going to be a good opportunity for partnerships, the alchemy of like-minded people setting out to get a movie in front of the most people possible. We all champion projects for reasons that aren’t just driven by bottom line but by a sense of cultural curation and the sense of advocacy for certain issues or certain voices or certain aesthetic choices. I think you’re going to see a mix of deals and, hopefully, they will all be very positive experiences for the filmmakers involved.

What was the wildest Sundance deal or bidding war you have ever been a part of?

We tend to be pretty sober in the moment about what we’re going to chase. We often find ourselves completely sitting out some that are going crazy just because they feel like they’re not for us. We had a lot of great conversations with Boots Riley on Sorry to Bother You at Sundance. For a lot of reasons, it didn’t come together for us to do a worldwide deal or a domestic deal. But we actually later did come on and partner with Annapurna doing all the international on that movie. Now, we have a great flow with Boots and are talking to him about all sorts of things that we hope will come to fruition.

How much of an appetite does Focus have to buy at Sundance this year?

We never like to show up at a festival needing to buy a movie (laughs), and I think we're in the same spot this year. We have been very, very busy over the past nine or 10 months, gotten quite a few movies in production. And movies that had to shut down in the middle, we got back up and running and completed. You look at the slate that lies ahead for us, and we’re feeling great about where things are. That said, we consider ourselves in the business of finding great movies and great voices and artists and being the best spot to champion them into the world, and we take that seriously. If we see something that fits the bill for us, we're not going to hesitate to jump at it either, like with Kajillionaire last year. We always have room for greatness on this slate, and we're going to leave no stone unturned as far as the process of Sundance this year.

Many film companies have been hurt by the shutdown of theaters, but others are thriving because of PVOD. Is Focus in the latter camp?

Yes, that is correct. We have been very, very happy with the results of what we've been doing with PVOD, for sure. Promising Young Woman has been an interesting example where traditional thinking and programming would have meant we probably would have started that movie on four screens in New York and L.A. and grown out to concentric markets over time. What happened in reality is we released it in something like 1,400 theaters in pretty much every market other than New York, L.A. and some of the other big ones that weren't open. It was almost the inverse of the plan, and it has been very successful. With PVOD, we are seeing audiences who either didn't have access to it because it wasn't playing in their city before or because it was playing but they didn't want to go to a theater yet. We have been, across all the titles, very, very happy with the financial results. But, more important, very, very happy with the cultural results.

Is PVOD the best thing that could've happened to ensure a future for labels like Focus?

Yeah. It's a model that is built to be additive to and supportive of the theatrical model. As for theatrical moviegoing — what is the old saying? Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. People will still go to movie theaters because there is something fundamentally different about hearing it and digesting it and responding to it in real time with an audience around you. It's just that simple. But the reality is, consumer patterns and habits have changed. We live in an ever-busier world. PVOD will provide a whole new financial ballast for all movies, not just specialty movies. Ultimately with PVOD it's not a collapsing of windows; it is a brand-new window that has been formed and gives consumers an opportunity to see something earlier than before at a slightly higher price point than before. We have seen, across every title we've done it on, that it is additive to the process. It's not cannibalizing one window to make room for another. [Universal chief] Donna [Langley] decided we were going to go PVOD literally on Day 1 of the shutdown of this pandemic, and one week later we were there on the services. All the credit goes to Pete Levinsohn and Jim Orr, who worked with exhibition to make this real. Everyone came together to make this a viable model that benefited the filmmakers and the storytellers and audiences equally.

What kinds of conversations are you having about Focus’s role in feeding the Peacock pipeline?

Peacock is a major new agenda for NBCU, as you know. [NBCUniversal chief] Jeff [Shell] is building the workflow the way he wants it, where all of the business units, of which we are a small part, are flowing much more meaningfully together as a single whole of NBCU as the best home for filmmakers, artists, storytellers, creators, to come and tell their stories. So, there’s a lot of conversations on that level that are happening. Peacock is going to get a few tiers along in terms of their growth and where they are headed before we, as Focus, are an incredibly active piece of feeding them. But we are already having conversations of ways that we are working together and you’re seeing it play out. We just had an amazing experience on a documentary that we made in partnership with MSNBC, The Way I See It. We were able to build a very unique model to release that in theaters and then, one month later, with the broadcast window on MSNBC. It was the most successful night of non-news broadcasting that MSNBC has had in their history, and then it was on Peacock. We are all finding ways to look at the breadth of the system and custom tailor release plans and pathways to market for our films and our filmmakers that might not have existed before.

Do you foresee a move toward greater transparency with PVOD and VOD numbers?

The industry at large is going to find a balance of the right way to communicate what PVOD performance means in a world where PVOD is different from streaming numbers and streaming numbers are different from individual tickets sold. There are now so many different ways that an audience can engage with the movie. Everyone has a natural relationship to what a certain box office level means in the world, how that feels. We don't really have that relationship with how many streaming transactions have happened. It's going to be an organic process over time.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.