James Schamus Parts Ways With Focus: 4 Films That Defined His Vision

Focus Features
"Brokeback Mountain"

The co-founder gravitated to director-driven films, with a touch more edge and innovation than standard awards-season fare.

In 2002, Universal merged three specialty divisions -- Good Machine, USA Films and Universal Focus -- to form Focus Features, which James Schamus, one of Good Machine’s co-founders, was brought on to run.  Yesterday marked the end of Schamus’ remarkable 11-year run at Focus. To many in the independent film world, it was the end of an era.  

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Here are four films that helped define the Focus brand.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

In addition to being Focus’ highest-domestic-grossing films of all time ($83 million), it was important because it proved once and for all that Schamus’ tastes, even a painful love story about two gay cowboys in the '60s and '70s, could be profitable. That Focus’ biggest breakout was the product of yet another collaboration with Schamus’ longtime filmmaking partner Ang Lee -- Schamus produces and often writes Lee’s movies -- had to be particularly rewarding for the fledgling studio.

Focus never won a best picture Oscar – not that Schamus was one to define success based on Academy statues – but Brokeback was the closest it came. The odds-on favorite at the 2006 ceremony, Crash’s victory was easily one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Focus’ biggest successes were often films that were hard to define or categorize. This might be best epitomized by Sofia Coppola’s film, which Richard Corliss aptly described as “a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road.” That's not exactly a description that goes on a movie poster, but it was to Schamus' credit that he trusted that Focus could help films like this find their audience. In the case of Lost in Translation, that meant a worldwide gross of $120 million and Oscar buzz for Bill Murray, in what turned out to be a career-redefining role.

The Pianist (2002)

The 2003 Academy Awards were memorable mostly because of the two surprise victories for The Pianist in the best actor and best director categories. Who could forget Adrien Brody’s genuinely shocked reaction and his making out with Halle Berry, or having to watch Martin Scorsese (the expected winner) graciously clap because Roman Polanski was, for obvious reasons, not there to accept his statue from a smirking Harrison Ford.

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2002 was an important year for the newly formed Focus. Along with The Pianist, Far From Heaven, The Kid Stays in the Picture and 8 Women quickly defined their art-house brand – director-driven films, with a touch more edge and innovation than standard awards-season fare.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal wasn’t one of Focus' most rewarded films, nor was it one of its 10 highest-grossing films -- but in 25 years, it might be the one best remembered. A particularly trippy Charlie Kaufman script directed by Michel Gondry led to a truly unique piece of cinema. Though lauded by critics at the time, the film’s reputation grew and went on to be considered one of the decade’s best, with the influential A.V. Club calling it the very best.

Other highlights from Focus' last 11 years under Schamus: Coraline, Atonement, Moonrise Kingdom, Pride and Prejudice, The Constant Gardener, Milk, The Kids Are All RIght, Eastern Promises, Swimming Pool, Brick, Hanna, The Debt, 21 Grams, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, Beginners, In Bruges, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.