Focus Features Shake-Up: What's Behind Peter Schlessel's Abrupt Exit

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

Schlessel is departing Universal's specialty unit after only two years on the job.

In late 2011, British filmmaker Alex Garland was on the hunt for financing for Ex Machina, his indie sci-fi thriller. He sent the script to David Kosse, then the London-based head of Universal Pictures International, who agreed to put up the money in exchange for Universal nabbing worldwide sales rights with an eye toward releasing the pic in key foreign territories.

Fast-forward to 2014. The $15 million British film was finished and looking for a U.S. distributor. Universal had right of first refusal, but the quirky Ex Machina wasn't necessarily an obvious fit for a big Hollywood studio. The project ended up on the desk of Peter Schlessel, CEO of Focus Features, Universal's specialty division. He passed.

Indie distributor A24 jumped at the chance to release Ex Machina, turning it into a critical darling and hit at the U.S. specialty box office, where it grossed $25.4 million following its release in 2015.

Schlessel didn't make the decision to pass in a vacuum. Universal chairman Donna Langley and other studio bigwigs agreed that it was the right move at the time, according to insiders. Still, in the wake of the movie's success, Langley and her team vowed not to let the same situation happen again.

On Feb. 4, Universal announced that Schlessel was out at Focus, which is undergoing another course correction and will once again concentrate on the sort of specialty films that were its hallmark when it was run by its previous chief, James Schamus. This time around, after merging with Universal International Pictures Productions, Focus will approach the specialty arena on a global basis.

When arriving at Focus just over two years ago, Schlessel, who replaced Schamus, was tasked with turning out more commercially minded genre fare, in addition to the critically favored specialty offerings that had been Focus' calling card under Schamus — movies such as Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right and Moonrise Kingdom.

During his previous posts as president of worldwide affairs at Sony Pictures and then CEO of Film District, Schlessel had been involved in crowd-pleasers like District 9, Olympus Has Fallen and Insidious. But many questioned Focus' new focus, since the parent studio, big Universal as it's called, was already in the business of releasing genre titles itself.

Inside Universal, executives were soon second-guessing the wisdom of the plan as Focus struggled at the box office throughout 2015, particularly when it came to specialty fare. Awards hopeful The Danish Girl has grossed only $10.6 million domestically to date, even though it grossed nearly $30 million overseas. The period feminist drama Suffragette earned $4.7 million in the States, while collecting another $11.3 million overseas. While the top two Focus earners in 2015 were both genre titles, Insidious: Chapter 3 ($52 million domestic) and Sinister 2 ($28 million domestic), Langley, according to insiders, had decided that Schlessel was no longer the right man for the assignment.

Certainly, the Universal chief didn't mince words in the Feb. 4 announcement, saying 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."

Peter Kujawski — who had worked for years at Focus under Schamus — will take over as CEO of the new-new Focus on April 1 after having served as managing director of UPIP, where he acquired such titles as The Wolf of Wall Street and Room, among others, for select foreign territories.

The idea behind merging Focus and UPIP is to evaluate specialty titles from a global perspective and not just in terms of their prospects at the U.S. box office.

"There's a reason why most major studios have shuttered their indie shingles. The money just isn't there right now. Independent cinema thrives at film festivals and caters to cinephiles, but the multiplex masses have been, and always will be, an extremely tough sell," says analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "I personally like the way Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics do business in the indie sector — autonomously, away from their parent company. Otherwise, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and the same sensibilities don't often apply when you're catering to a buffet versus an intimate dinner."

As part of Kujawski's team, UPIP co-managing director Robert Walak, a well-respected international executive who did a recent stint at The Weinstein Co., will become president of Focus, while Universal Pictures executive vp film strategy Abhijay Prakash will join Focus as chief operating officer.

Exiting along with Schlessel are Focus COO Adrian Alperovich, marketing president Christine Birch and president of acquisitions Lia Buman — all of whom worked with Schlessel at FilmDistrict, his previous company. Staying on are Jim Burke, president of production, and marketing and publicity chief Adriene Bowles, a Focus veteran.

Under Schlessel's rule, Focus operated out of FilmDistrict's old office space in Santa Monica, but it will now relocate to space on the Universal lot in Universal City. It's a dramatic turn of events. When Schlessel himself took over Focus, which had been headquartered in New York under Schamus, he made sweeping changes. More than 100 employees were laid off when the New York office and a London satellite office were shuttered.

For those Focus staffers who remained during Schlessel's brief tenure, having Kujawski take over brings them full circle, since he was raised in the Schamus tradition, having begun his career as an assistant to Schamus at Good Machine, the indie production, distribution and sales company that Schamus co-founded back in the mid-1990s.