Sean Penn on Fired Focus CEO James Schamus: 'Only Liability May Have Been Good Taste'

Schlessel will replace Schamus (right, with Penn), who championed art house films like "Milk."

As NBCUniversal shows the art house hero the door, the "Milk" star joins a chorus of insiders bemoaning the end of an era.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Call it a low blow for high art. Among the legions of James Schamus loyalists perturbed by his abrupt dismissal Oct. 2 as head of Focus Features is Sean Penn, who scored his second Oscar starring in Milk for the NBCUniversal-owned specialty label. "Schamus' only liability may have been good taste," Penn tells THR. "I don't take it as a good sign of our business' health when I hear of these ousters."

Penn hardly is alone in that assessment. As FilmDistrict's Peter Schlessel readies to take over for Schamus as part of a larger NBCU shake-up that saw Universal chairman Adam Fogelson ousted and Jeff Shell installed as the top film exec, Focus operations will be consolidated in L.A. Schlessel is expected to flesh out Focus' slate with more mainstream fare, which some are bemoaning as the end of the studio specialty division era. "I don't think we can get a clearer marker that times have fully changed in the film biz," wrote Ted Hope, co-founder with Schamus in the 1990s of indie incubator Good Machine, in a blog post.

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Indie player John Sloss, who worked with Schamus on Far From Heaven and The Kids Are All Right, sees the shuttering of Focus' New York office as a symbolic blow to the East Coast film scene. "Focus has been a physical mainstay of that community for a long, long time," he says. As to the fate of the rest of Schamus' team -- including his co-CEO Andrew Karpen -- everything remains up in the air until Schlessel makes his final decisions in the coming weeks.

Focus insists it won't do away with the art house fare Schamus championed but rather is looking to expand and diversify its release slate to 10 films a year from its current six. Cassian Elwes, producer of Focus' Nov. 1 awards hopeful Dallas Buyers Club, laments that the switch-up boils down to economics. "All studios want to do is make more money to increase the bottom line," he says. "One way to do that is to increase the level of product going through one of their distribution arms."

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Despite his reputation for esotericism, Schamus, 54, wasn't unwilling to bend toward popular tastes -- the high-profile adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is a Focus/Universal co-production. But recent outings didn't impress NBCU brass: March's Tina Fey-Paul Rudd pairing Admission only made $18 million domestically, while the Steve Carell 2012 dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World earned an anemic $7 million. (That year, Wes Anderson's quirky Moonrise Kingdom did make $45 million.)

Insiders stress that Schamus' firing doesn't herald the death of art house cinema. Says Sloss, "We're in a great period of smart, tasteful financiers out there." But while that's true -- The Weinstein Co. has never been more active -- few indie distributors have the means to put massive marketing behind a small movie. For his part, Elwes isn't worried about Dallas Buyers: "The game plan has been in place for a while."


Twitter: @SethAbramovitch