Focus Features Shake-Up: Peter Schlessel Out

Peter Kujawski with Peter Schlessel Split - H 2016
Courtesy of Focus Features; Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS/Newscom

As part of a merger with UPIP, Peter Kujawski will lead the reconfigured Focus, while COO Adrian Alperovich, marketing president Christine Birch and president of acquisitions Lia Buman will exit.

Universal Pictures said Thursday that Focus Features will merge with Universal Pictures International Productions. As part of the move, Focus CEO Peter Schlessel will exit his post on April 1.

Peter Kujawski, current managing director of UPIP, will lead the newly integrated Focus Features as chairman. A specialty film veteran, Kujawski will transition into his new role following Schlessel's departure. In addition, UPIP co-managing director Robert Walak will become president, and Universal Pictures executive vp film strategy Abhijay Prakash will join Focus as chief operating officer.

As part of the shake-up, Focus COO Adrian Alperovich, marketing president Christine Birch and president of acquisitions Lia Buman all will be exiting the company in April. Jim Burke, who joined Focus in March, will continue in his role as president of production.

Focus had a slow year at the box office in 2015, with only a pair of horror films providing any spark. Insidious: Chapter 3 was the label's top earner with $52 million domestically, followed by Sinister 2 with $28 million. But several specialty films failed to ignite, most notably the Carey Mulligan-Meryl Streep drama Suffragette, which earned less than $5 million.

The new Focus, which is expected to migrate its headquarters over to the Universal lot, will be tasked with growing the specialty film sector of the studio both domestically and around the world. The announcement was made by Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley.

By integrating Focus Features and UPIP under the Focus banner, the newly configured label will leverage Universal’s worldwide distribution apparatus on behalf of its specialty product and become more closely aligned with the studio’s global strategy. Focus Features will retain full marketing and distribution operations, and its domestic release volume will remain the same. Internationally, it will build on the UPIP focus on local-language production, English-language co-productions, territorial acquisitions and English-language production around the world. Schlessel has worked closely with Langley over the past several months in helping to conceive the new Focus. 

“This move further demonstrates our commitment to both the specialty space and the international production and acquisition businesses,” said Langley. “By aligning these product lines and bringing them closer to the studio, Focus will be able to take advantage of a wealth of resources — maximizing its opportunity for success. The management team we’ve assembled is a seasoned specialty team that will be charged with both sharpening our product mix and building a premier global specialty brand. With Peter’s leadership and team-building abilities, coupled with Robert’s impeccable taste and wealth of filmmaker relationships and Abhijay’s vital experience in strategic slate-building, we believe we are well-positioned to be a leader in the specialty business around the world.”

Langley said that she and Schlessel mutually agreed that it was the right time for him to leave the company as his interests are not solely focused on the specialized film marketplace.

“I have enjoyed my time at Focus and getting to know some very talented executives both at the company as well as within the Universal leadership team," said Schlessel. "I am very proud of our 2016-17 slate, which followed the mandate given to us to combine director-driven movies with wide-release commercial pictures. With Universal’s success in the diversity of its slate, I was happy to help transition the company back to a pure specialty label.”

Schlessel will oversee the release of the division’s upcoming releases of RaceLondon Has Fallen and The Young Messiah before his departure.

“The foundational belief on which Focus Features was built and will continue to operate is that movies are an important and meaningful part of how people connect with and better understand each other," said Kujawski. "With our new worldwide perspective, Focus will continue that mandate with a global audience."

Kujawski began his career at Good Machine, where he started as an assistant to company co-founder and co-president James Schamus, who previously ran Focus. When Good Machine was absorbed into Focus Features in the spring of 2002, Kujawski joined the company, where he eventually served as executive vp international sales. He came to Universal in 2011 as executive vp worldwide acquisitions before his appointment to managing director of UPIP in 2014. Under his leadership, UPIP acquired rights to hugely successful films, including The Wolf of Wall Street, Boyhood and Room, which Universal released in select territories.

Walak joined Universal Pictures in 2015 as co-managing director of UPIP after serving as managing director Europe/president production, acquisitions and TV at The Weinstein Company for several years, where he led a range of acquisitions, including Carol, Paddington, The Imitation Game and Woman in Gold. Before TWC, Walak was senior vp acquisitions and production at Alliance Films/Momentum Pictures, where he led the acquisition of The King’s Speech. Previously, he worked in business development at Endemol and was a producer at MTV Europe. He will continue to be based in London in his new role.

Prakash most recently served as executive vp film strategy & operations at Universal, overseeing a team responsible for key strategic initiatives while also supporting operations related to studio slate planning, greenlighting, marketing and film financing across the studio’s various product lines. Before Universal, he worked at the Boston Consulting Group.