THR honors James Schamus

Focus Features CEO named Indie Icon at Sundance

Q&A: James Schamus

The film industry came out of the Park City snow Friday night to fete Focus Features CEO James Schamus as he accepted The Hollywood Reporter’s third annual Indie Icon of the Year award.

Newly appointed Sundance director John Cooper and THR publisher Eric Mika took to the stage in Cafe Terigo’s upstairs lounge to honor the exec for his decades producing, writing, teaching and greenlighting independent film.
Cooper recalled Schamus inviting the then-neophyte programmer to lunch two decades ago in Berlin. “All of a sudden, everyone was looking at me,” he recalled. “Every time you’re with James, you end up looking better in his presence. (He’s) a very good person.”
Before accepting his award, Schamus demurred when asked how many honors he’d received in the past. “The main reason I do these things is to remind people we exist,” he said. “Aside from ego and honor, you have to crawl out of your coffin every three or four months so everyone knows you’re alive.”

As Mika noted onstage, however, the exec has little to worry about. “In September 2009, while the rest of us were trying to make our mortgages, Focus Features made a billion dollars,” Mika said. “That’s extraordinary, and you don’t do that without a vision.”
Andie MacDowell, Morgan Spurlock, Endgame’s Jim Stern, ICM’s Hal Sadoff, UTA’s Rena Ronson, Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu, producer David Permut and many other industry vets were among the crowd for Schamus’ speech.
On the plane ride to Sundance, Schamus recalled that the first article ever written about his work in the film business was in THR back in 1987. “I was a graduate student optioning a dead Scandanavian filmmaker. I thought, ‘This is news? I’ve really got to do this film or it’ll be embarrassing.” The film never materialized, but Schamus went on to write an acclaimed book about its author, Carl Theodor Dreyer, one of numerous academic pursuits he continues today at Columbia University and elsewhere.
Several executives from Focus’ team were also on hand to honor their boss, including Andrew Karpen, John Lyons, Avy Eschenasy, Peter Kujawski, Adriene Bowles, Dylan Wilcox and Chan Phung. Aside from scouting potential acquisitions and new talent, the team was in town to support the Sundance screening of “New African Cinema,” three of the first short films from Focus’ Africa First Program.
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“I look around this room, and there’s so much joy,” Schamus said in closing. “I’d like to say the most important words you can say in this business: See you next year.”
John Burke and Marissa Roman from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP also sponsored the event. Past recipients of the Icon award include former Sundance director Geoff Gilmore in 2008 and Summit heads Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger in 2009.