Focus Shake-Up: 'Fifty Shades' and 5 Pressing Questions

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Peter Schlessel

Peter Schlessel is taking over Focus from longtime CEO James Schamus, and that has far-reaching implications for Universal's specialty distributor.

Universal is giving its specialty film unit Focus Features a major makeover. FilmDistrict's Peter Schlessel is taking over Focus, and James Schamus, who co-founded the unit more than a decade ago and then cultivated hits like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right, is departing. Major changes are in store.

On Wednesday, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley flew to New York to inform Schamus that Schlessel is taking over, beginning in January. Focus headquarters are being relocated from New York City to L.A.

Schlessel will be assessing all of Focus' operations and assembling his own executive team in the coming weeks. It's not yet clear how many Focus executives will be asked to make the move to California.

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The studio's announcement didn't answer all the questions that the change in leadership raises. Here are the five most pressing issues.

1. What kind of movies will the new Focus Features release?

Universal said that Schlessel will be seeking to "broaden the types of films that Focus distributes and increase the number of films the division releases to as many as 10 films per year." Focus currently releases about six films per year.

Focus is known for art house–friendly films, augmented by a picture or two with broader crossover appeal. Its two biggest pictures so far this year are Edgar Wright's comedy The World's End, which has grossed $25.7 million domestically, and Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, which has taken in $21.4 million domestically.

FilmDistrict, which Schlessel co-founded in 2010, has distributed low-to-medium budget films, a number of which have gone on to become commercial hits, like Olympus Has Fallen, which grossed $98 million domestically earlier this year, and Insidious 2, which collected an impressive $70 million in September. With Schlessel at its helm, Focus can be expected to shift more toward the FilmDistrict side of the indie spectrum. 

The biggest potential title on Focus' upcoming release slate is, of course, the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which Sam Taylor-Johnson is currently directing and which is scheduled for an August 2014 release. Author E.L. James said she entrusted the film to Universal and Schamus' Focus because the specialty unit had shown "a great background in handling difficult material."

2. What does this mean for films in development and those awaiting release?

Universal said that the new Focus will continue to rely on a mix of internally developed and produced movies as well as acquisitions. While not a prolific producer, Focus does have some major projects in its development pipeline. It recently wrapped production on Kill the Messenger, an adaptation of Nick Schou's book about crusading journalist Gary Webb that stars Jeremy Renner. In June, Focus, along with U.K. production company Working Title, picked up The Lifeboat, an adaptation of a book by Charlotte Rogan with Anne Hathaway attached to star and produce. And in August, it took on Rose, a spec thriller that Robert Zemeckis and his ImageMovers are producing.  
Focus also had one of the bigger acquisitions at the recent Toronto Film, where it grabbed the Jason Bateman dark comedy Bad Words.

FilmDistrict also has several films in various stages of development. The distributor picked up Arabian Nights, starring Liam Hemsworth, at the Cannes market in 2011 and is currently developing it. In June, it picked up the adaptation of Anne Rice‘s 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.

FilmDistrict will wrap up this year by distributing Spike Lee's Oldboy, opening Nov. 27. Beyond that, the movies that FilmDistrict planned to release in 2014 -- Pompeii in February, Walk of Shame starring Elizabeth Banks in March and Tarsem Singh's drama Selfless, slated for release in September -- will most likely go out through Focus, since Focus will release all FilmDistrict titles beginning in January.

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3. Will Blumhouse films now be released under Focus?

Schlessel and Universal already shared one common bond -- horror producer Jason Blum. Universal has a producing deal with Blum's Blumhouse, while FilmDistrict is the U.S. distributor of his Insidious franchise. 

Universal will continue to release those Blumhouse films falling under its deal, rather than shift them over to Focus. But next year, Focus itself will release Insidious 3, which is currently on the FilmDistrict release slate.

4. What happens to Focus Features International?

In addition to its domestic operation, Focus also has had a busy sales and financing arm, Focus Features International, headed by Alison Thompson and based in London. The fate of Focus International was not addressed in Wednesday's announcement, and it's one aspect of the company that Schlessel, who is himself experienced in the world of international sales, will be assessing in the coming weeks, according to insiders.

5. What does Schamus do next?

According to Universal, Schamus will next focus on producing the 3D boxing movie that Ang Lee is directing for Focus. (Lee and Schamus are longtime collaborators.) Lee's film centers on the biggest boxing matches of the '60s and '70s, specifically those between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Peter Morgan is writing the script.

There was no mention of whether or not Schamus will have any involvement with Focus' Fifty Shades of Grey.