Focus Shake-Up: James Schamus Out, Peter Schlessel In

James Schamus Peter Schlessel Split - H 2013
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James Schamus Peter Schlessel Split - H 2013

UPDATED: Schlessel's FilmDistrict is essentially being absorbed by Focus; the move marks a major shift in the specialty distribution business.

In a dramatic makeover, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley has engineered for Peter Schlessel to take over Focus Features from long-tenured CEO James Schamus. The hire is effective in January, when Focus will leave its longtime New York City headquarters and relocate all of its operations to Los Angeles.

Schlessel's FilmDistrict will essentially be absorbed by Focus, although Universal did not purchase the distributor. FilmDistrict films set for release after January 2014 are expected to be released by the newly constituted Focus, bringing to an end the distribution venture launched by Schlessel, Graham King and Tim Headington in 2010.

Langley's intention is to expand Focus' footprint and grow the company's slate to 10 films a year, heralding a significant personality change for the art house-minded distributor. At FilmDistrict, Schlessel has attempted to release films destined for wider viewership, including Olympus Has Fallen and the Insidious franchise. Among FilmDistrict's critical hits are Drive.

The changes at Focus have been in the works for some time, according to sources. Langley traveled to New York to deliver the news to Schamus on Wednesday morning.

Schlessel and Schamus couldn't be more different. While both are considered all-around nice guys, Schlessel understands both the studio and the specialty worlds, having launched Screen Gems then risen up through the ranks at Sony, while Schamus -- famous for his trademark bow-tie -- has never strayed from his arthouse roots. He ran New York indie powerhouse Good Machine with David Linde before the duo launched Focus in 2002 (Linde left Focus to become co-chairman of Universal, a gig he held from 2006 to 2009).

Schamus has always had a tremendous amount of autonomy at Focus, but Langley may have begun exerting more influence in recent months. She played a key role in securing the film rights to Fifty Shades of Grey, a Focus project. 

News of the shake-up comes only weeks after Langley gained more power at the studio with the ouster of Adam Fogelson and arrival of Jeff Shell, her new boss. Langley was upped from co-chairman to chairman of Universal Pictures, while Shell was named chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group.

"The breadth and depth of Peter's experience in the film business including production, acquisitions, distribution and most recently running FilmDistrict, will be a tremendous asset to Focus Features as the company broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product," said Langley. "Peter is one of the most talented executives in the industry and I'm confident that under his leadership, Focus will become even more of a force as the specialty film business continues to evolve."

Schlessel will be seeking to broaden the types of films that Focus distributes, although Universal insiders say the company will still be committed to specialty fare as well. In the coming weeks, Schlessel will be assembling his new executive team, which is expected to include several of his FilmDistrict colleagues. He'll also assess all aspects of Focus' operation, including Focus Features International.

"It is a great honor to be joining Donna and the other talented executives at Universal Pictures," said Schlessel. "The Focus brand is respected throughout the industry and we intend to build on this while expanding the perception of what constitutes a Focus Features film."

Universal said Schamus is leaving to work with Ang Lee on Lee's untitled 3D boxing movie for Universal. Schamus and Lee are longtime collaborators, including having made Brokeback Mountain together at Focus.

Schamus is a preeminent figure in the art house world.

"I have tremendous admiration for James, who has grown Focus Features into a premier brand, and we are grateful to him for his commitment to Focus and many years of service," said Langley.

"It's been an amazing and joyous run at Focus, where our love of film has always been matched by our love and respect for our filmmakers and for each other," said Schamus. "I wish Peter all the best with the next chapter, and look forward to working with my great colleagues at Universal on Ang's movie and many more to come."

Outside of Schamus, the fate of other top-level Focus executives isn't known. Focus president Andrew Karpen informed the staff of the changes following Langley's meeting with Schamus.

Focus is presently gearing up for the release of awards contender Dallas Buyers Club on Nov. 1.

Cassian Elwes, a producer on the film, was shocked by the news. "It's a little disconcerting for the movie. I'm kind of shocked. Jim was spearheading this picture. He was the one that wanted to buy it and he's been very active. The game plan is in place so it's about execution," Elwes said.

Another veteran indie film executive was likewise surprised. "But it makes sense. I like Schamus a lot, but Focus as an entity feels like it could be doing a lot more volume. I don't see Schamus doing Insidious and Olympus Has Fallen. They have a ton of distribution real estate and not enough movies."

Continuing, the executive said, "Peter is one of the best in the business. He cares about art-house movies to the extent that they can make money, which probably brings more discipline. If Peter performs, which I truly think he will, it's good for Donna. Is she trying to be Michael Jordan, or Phil Jackson bringing in Michael Jordan?"

Kim Masters contributed to this report.