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Going It Alone, Focus Features' CEO Is in the Spotlight

It's up to James Schamus to keep up the specialty film label's momentum.

May 20, 2006|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

In the world of specialty films, success often comes in pairs. Harvey and Bob Weinstein built Miramax into an indie powerhouse. Sony Pictures Classics, which puts more foreign films into theaters than any other distributor, is run by Tom Bernard and Michael Barker.

Then there are James Schamus and David Linde, whose four years at the helm of Focus Features, Universal Pictures' specialized film label, culminated with the 2005 hit "Brokeback Mountain." But two months ago, when Linde became Universal's co-chairman, it forced a question: Could Schamus go it alone?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Focus Features executive: An article in Saturday's Business section on Focus Features Chief Executive James Schamus said he had co-written all of director Ang Lee's films since "The Wedding Banquet." In fact, Schamus co-wrote all of Lee's films except "Sense and Sensibility" and "Brokeback Mountain."

This week, as the Cannes Film Festival got underway, the professorial 46-year-old acknowledged that many see his first solo appearance at the world's premier marketplace for movie sales as his coming of age.

"I know this seems like James' bar mitzvah, but it's not a big deal," the newly crowned chief executive of Focus Features said, referring to himself in the third person. "It's not like David was the guy running the nuclear reactor in the back room and he left with the keys."

In fact, from the start of their working relationship, which began in 1997 when Linde joined Schamus and producer Ted Hope at indie production company Good Machine, it was Linde who usually took the lead at Cannes.

Schamus knows there is much at stake. The New York-based Focus is coming off its most successful year, nabbing 16 Academy Award nominations (and four wins) for its 2005 slate. It now falls to Schamus to keep momentum from flagging.

Linde, for one, says he's up to the job. "James is a very talented guy and more than capable of assuming this responsibility," he said. "It's a natural progression."

Linde's new partner, Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shmuger, agreed

"He is almost scary smart," Shmuger said of Schamus. "He can do anything he wants to do."

In Cannes, Schamus is hoping to buy several movies from overseas producers. Moreover, Focus plans to increase its presence abroad by continuing to distribute its own movies, such as the forthcoming David Cronenberg drama "Eastern Promises," and by stepping up its deals to distribute other studios' more specialized movies such as Disney's "Dan in Real Life," starring Steve Carell.

Schamus' mandate is a broad one. In addition to overseeing the company's expanding foothold in the international financing and distribution arena, he and his team must develop and acquire enough material to ensure a continued slate of ambitious artistic movies, like last year's "The Constant Gardener."

Focus is also venturing for the first time into the world of animated films, with plans to release "Nine" and "Coraline" next year. And Schamus has made beefing up Focus' nascent genre label, Rogue Pictures, a priority.

Launched two years ago, Rogue has struggled to find an identity, seeing only one hit with last year's British spoof "Shaun of the Dead." Misfires such as "The Seed of Chucky" failed to cash in on the lucrative horror genre that competitor Lionsgate has milked with low-budget hits such as "Saw."

Faced with such a long to-do list, Schamus promoted a team of executives to take the lead on strengthening Focus' international efforts and on developing Rogue into a top-notch label.

Schamus has come a long way from the early 1990s, when he and Hope founded Good Machine and schlepped their wares out of Cannes' dumpiest motel rooms.

From the beginning, Good Machine relied on international financing and the selling of movie rights abroad to make such independent films as Todd Haynes' "Safe." Schamus and Hope boasted of being the "kings of the no-budget movie," recalled Ang Lee, the recent Oscar winner (for "Brokeback Mountain") who was one of the first directors to make a movie with the pair.

"There they were with two desks in the corner, sharing the space with another company," said Lee, then an unknown who had just won a $400,000 grant from the Taiwanese government to make a movie.

Lee said Schamus struck him as a cross between a professor and a used-car salesman. "But I pitched my story and they pitched their company," the director recalled. "I just prayed they were not crooks."

They were not crooks, but the film, "Pushing Hands," flopped in the U.S.

Had their next collaboration, "The Wedding Banquet," not worked, they would have gone out of business. But the film was a worldwide hit and solidified the partnership between Lee and Schamus, who have collaborated on (and co-written) every movie that Lee has directed since -- including adapting a Chinese novel to make "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Around that time, Schamus realized that if he wanted to make great movies with ambitious filmmakers, he would have to evolve from the "no budget" guy to a producer who could find the money. He set about mastering the art of international financing and brought in Linde to lead the way.

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