Inside the Focus Shakeup: Universal Plotted Peter Schlessel Move for Months (Analysis)

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James Schamus, left, and Peter Schlessel

Why Universal's Donna Langley is charting a new, broader course for the specialty label as James Schamus exits and the veteran FilmDistrict exec takes over.

Around the time he took the reins as CEO of NBCUniversal in 2011, Steve Burke met with a series of Hollywood executives who were recommended to him as smart and capable. Among them was Peter Schlessel, who co-founded Film District in 2010 after having launched the Screen Gems genre label during a long career at Sony Pictures. 

Burke and Universal's Donna Langley returned to Schlessel when they were figuring out what to do with the studio's Focus Features unit, which had released art house fare such as Milk and Brokeback Mountain under CEO James Schamus but had become less profitable than desired for Universal owner Comcast.

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On Wednesday, Langley, who was upped to chairman in September, announced that Schlessel would replace Schamus and Universal would absorb FilmDistrict. Sources say Langley and Burke had been plotting the move for months, but while Schamus suspected change was in the air (especially after Universal chairman Adam Fogelson was let go and Jeff Shell was brought in to oversee the film studio with Langley), he was kept in the dark until Wednesday, when Langley and lieutenant Jimmy Horowitz broke the news to him in person in New York. Langley then informed the entire Focus team via video conference that Focus' headquarters will be relocated to Los Angeles.

Schamus, who left the Focus building after his meeting with Langley, won't be returning to his office, according to sources. He declined to comment. Focus president Andrew Karpen could announce his plans as early as Thursday. Even if Schlessel wanted Karpen to stay on, Karpen could decide he doesn't want to relocate to L.A. Karpen couldn't be reached for comment.

In tapping Schlessel, who helped turned Screen Gems into a powerhouse genre label for Sony, Universal is looking to improve the specialty distributor's profile and performance by moving away from the pure prestige pictures that were Focus' staple. While at FilmDistrict, Schlessel had a hit-and-miss box-office record, but he snapped up distribution rights to the wildly successful Insidious horror franchise and bought the critically acclaimed genre pic Drive. He also partnered with Sony on Looper, another sophisticated genre title.

FilmDistrict will cease operation as a distributor in January when Schessel officially takes over at Focus. He is likely to bring many of his executive team at FilmDistrict with him, making the fate of other top Focus executives uncertain.

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Another looming question is the fate of the London-based Focus Features International. The international sales operation is headed by veteran Alison Thompson. Schlessel will be assessing all aspects of the business, with sources speculating that the London office could be shut down.

Schamus, who founded Focus in 2002 with David Linde, never strayed far from his deep art house roots. Beloved both in Hollywood and in indie circles, Schamus turned out specialty hits at Focus including Atonement, Moonrise Kingdom, Burn After Reading and Lost in Translation. But in recent times, Focus projects have often struggled at the box office.

Schamus was developing the high-profile adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey with Langley, and the two are said to have clashed over the project. But sources says his ouster is not a result of the tension but rather is due to the new direction that Burke and Langley are plotting for the label.

Schamus has worked closely with filmmaker Ang Lee for years and will help produce Lee's 3D boxing epic for Focus, Universal said Wednesday in a press release announcing the changes. Schamus' remaining role in the Fifty Shades movie, if any, was not specified in the release.