Focus Features Business Information, Profile, and History
Focus Features is a motion picture production, financing, and worldwide distribution company committed to bringing moviegoers the most original stories from the world's most innovative filmmakers.
The company's Rogue Pictures label is devoted to producing and distributing high-quality suspense, action, thriller, comedy, and urban entertainment with mainstream appeal and franchise potential.
History of Focus Features
Focus Features produces and distributes specialty films for Universal Pictures, a unit of NBC Universal, Inc. The firm has achieved success with titles like Brokeback Mountain, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pride and Prejudice. Focus also markets films abroad via Focus International, and operates a sister unit called Rogue Pictures to release genre movies like Shaun of the Dead and Assault on Precinct 13. The company was created in 2002 by the merger of USA Films and Good Machine and is headed by key executives from the latter firm, including Co-president James Schamus, a longtime collaborator of Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee.
Focus Features was founded in 2002, but its origins can be traced to 1991, when James Schamus and Ted Hope formed an independent film production company in New York called Good Machine. Their purpose was to make interesting films on topics that were not commercially viable for the major studios, which had become increasingly addicted to big-budget blockbusters. Schamus was an assistant professor at Columbia University, where he taught classes in film theory, history, and "no-budget" production techniques, while Hope had worked on a number of independent films, including several with director Hal Hartley. The pair had become acquainted when Schamus taught at Yale in the 1980s.
Their first project together was a film entitled Pushing Hands (Tui Shou), which was directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee and financed by a $400,000 grant he had won through a national screenwriting contest in his home country. With help from Schamus and Hope, the film was produced and released to a few specialty "art house" theaters in the United States, where it grossed $150,000 at the box office.
At first Good Machine was run almost as a hobby by its founders, releasing films the company had produced (features as well as shorts), and a few others it arranged to distribute in the United States like The Hours and Times, a drama about an alleged homosexual affair between Beatle John Lennon and the group's manager Brian Epstein. The company typically sought outside investors for each project, and most made their money back, an unusual result for films of this type. While some titles were distributed by the company itself, others were passed off to larger firms, as Good Machine had no serious distribution apparatus in place.
Schamus and Hope enjoyed cultivating relationships with artists they respected, in particular Ang Lee, and over the years Good Machine would produce all of his films. Schamus also co-wrote the scripts for many, including the second, 1993's The Wedding Banquet, which earned $28 million at the box office after it was sold to the Samuel Goldwyn Company. It also was nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar. Another successful release of this period, The Brothers McMullen, was picked up after director Edward Burns had failed to sell it and Hope helped him edit it into a more coherent form. The company was involved with as many as a half-dozen films per year, including titles like Todd Haynes's Safe and Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking.
The Founding of an International Sales Unit in 1997
In 1997 Good Machine and another independent producer/distributor, October Films, formed a joint venture to sell overseas rights to films the two companies owned. Good Machine International would be headed by Hope and Schamus's new partner David Linde, who had previously done similar work for Fox/Lorber and Miramax.
Good Machine was part of a new wave of independent production companies, and as their brand of offbeat, sometimes edgy films increasingly turned a profit and even began to reach mainstream audiences (via hits like Pulp Fiction), the dynamic of the marketplace began to change. More aggressive firms such as Miramax began to heat up the competition for new titles at festivals like Sundance, while theater owners raised their expectations for ticket sales and asked for greater advertising support from distributors. Meanwhile, the major studios had begun noticing the independents' growing profits as well as their ability to win prestigious Academy Awards, and were swooping down to cut deals with or buy them.
In early 2000 Good Machine broadened its scope to television by initiating projects with both HBO and the Sci-Fi Channel, while also announcing plans to produce family films and what it called "uncensored cinema." The latter category was expected to yield two to five films per year with budgets of less than $5 million on sexually explicit themes. The first, Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, proved an art-house hit.
December 2000 saw the U.S. release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a philosophical martial arts movie directed by Ang Lee and co-scripted by Schamus, which had cost $12 million to make in China. It was co-produced by Good Machine International and several other firms, with Linde and Schamus acting as executive producers. U.S. distribution rights were sold to Sony Pictures Classics and worldwide distribution was handled by Columbia and other firms. The subtitled film proved a sensation, earning more than $125 million in the United States and winning Oscars for best foreign-language film, cinematography, music score, and art direction. In 2001 Good Machine cut a deal with Miramax (which had just picked up the company's critically acclaimed In the Bedroom) that gave the latter firm exclusive "first-look" access to future titles in exchange for $1 million per year. The company also began work on its largest production to date, Lee's filmization of the Marvel Comics classic Hulk, again co-scripted by Schamus. The $120 million film would be released by its financial backer, Universal Pictures.
Good Machine's Acquisition in 2002 and the Creation of Focus Features
In May 2002 Good Machine was purchased by Universal for an undisclosed sum and merged with USA Films, an independent production/distribution company that Universal had acquired in December 2001 as part of the $7 billion purchase of USA Networks, Inc. The combined enterprises were renamed Focus Features, with Good Machine co-presidents Schamus and Linde put in charge and partner Ted Hope producing pictures for the firm via his own This Is That unit. In addition to helping run the studio and writing scripts for Lee, Schamus would continue to teach classes at Columbia as well as working to complete a book on Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer.
The firm that was now allied with Good Machine, USA Films, had been formed in the spring of 1999 when Barry Diller's USA Networks, Inc. had acquired October Films and parts of Universal Studios division PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. October had been founded in 1991 and released and/or produced such independent hits as The War Room, Breaking the Waves, and Secrets and Lies. Universal had bought a stake in 1997, but sold it to USA Networks two years later.
USA Films also incorporated Gramercy Pictures and subunits Propaganda Films and Interscope Communications. Gramercy had been founded in 1992 as a co-venture between PolyGram and Universal, and had released hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Dead Man Walking, The Usual Suspects, and Fargo. USA Films' own successes had included Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999) and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), and it also had distributed Ang Lee's money-losing $35 million Civil War film of 1999, Ride with the Devil. It had 100 employees and 2001 sales estimated at $167 million.
After the merger USA Films' production, marketing, and distribution operations would remain in place, as would Good Machine's international sales unit, now known as Focus International. The latter would represent third-party producers as well as Focus and Universal for foreign sales, and would continue to be run by Linde. Focus would operate as a completely independent unit of Universal, with Schamus and Linde reporting directly to Universal Chairman Stacey Snider. The Focus name had previously been used for Universal's own inhouse specialty film unit, which had been shut down just a month earlier. Focus Features reportedly operated with a $30 million budget limit, with Universal given final say on whether projects were undertaken. The company, which would aim for ten to 12 releases per year, would be headquartered in USA's former offices in New York's Greenwich Village.
In the spring of 2002 Focus acquired U.S. and some foreign rights to Roman Polanski's Cannes Film Festival award-winner The Pianist, and in July bought 21 Grams, a drama about drug use starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. A new film from Todd Haynes, Far From Heaven, was released in the fall, as was The Pianist. Both were art-house hits and were nominated for Academy Awards the following spring, with the latter winning in three categories.
In 2003 Focus released Sofia Coppola's critically acclaimed $4 million Lost in Translation, while parent Universal put out the $120 million Hulk. The latter received mixed reviews and did a relatively disappointing $132 million in wide release in the United States, while the former was a critical and financial smash on the art-house circuit, pulling in $44 million and winning an Oscar for Coppola's script (one of four nominations it received). Lost and several other successes like French mystery Swimming Pool (which grossed $10 million) contributed to the firm's total box office of $101 million for the year. Not every film was a profit-maker, however, with a British Sylvia Plath biopic that starred Gwyneth Paltrow doing just $1 million domestically and Australian import Ned Kelly pulling in a mere $85,000 in ticket sales.
Founding Rogue Pictures in 2004
In March 2004 Focus launched a new imprint called Rogue Pictures, which would specialize in suspense, action, thriller, and urban genre films for a more mainstream audience. Its first releases included action remake Assault on Precinct 13 and a sequel to the successful horror film franchise about a killer doll, Seed of Chucky, as well as British import Shaun of the Dead.
Focus had another respectable art-house hit with the March release Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, and also did well with Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, taking in $16.7 million for the subtitled release. One of 2004's major disappointments was the $23 million Reese Witherspoon period piece Vanity Fair, which earned just $16 million in the United States.
In the fall of 2004 the company signed first-look agreements with Priority Pictures, Deacon Entertainment, and Completion Films, whose output Focus would have first pass on in exchange for annual fees. The firm also was seeking to improve sales of its DVDs by working with retailers like Virgin, which highlighted Focus titles in a special rotating rack. Some films that had underperformed in theaters proved more popular on home video, including Rogue's Assault on Precinct 13, which sold more than two million copies in its first week of its release through Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
In May 2005 Focus announced that it was expanding Rogue Pictures to a new level of activity, with ten releases per year planned. In addition to theatrical films, it would also begin releasing some titles directly to DVD. Rogue would become a sister to Focus within the Universal family, with David Linde continuing to oversee the unit's activities and former head of Miramax genre unit Dimension Films Andrew Rona later added as head of production. Rogue's most recent release, an action picture called Unleashed that starred Jet Li and Morgan Freeman, had debuted at number three on the U.S. box office rankings with a $10.9 million gross its first weekend.
Fall of 2005 saw an agreement signed with Random House to co-produce and co-finance films via a new venture known as Random House Films, whose offerings would be based on titles from the latter company's extensive book catalog. Random House was the largest publisher in the world, and incorporated some 100 imprints that together were responsible for approximately one-fourth of all U.S. consumer book sales, with titles including bestsellers from authors like John Grisham and Toni Morrison. Film projects would be jointly owned by Random House and Focus, with the latter controlling worldwide sales and distribution and the publisher releasing books based on films or original Focus screenplays. Random House vice-president and editor-at-large Peter Gethers, himself an author and screenwriter, would head the unit.
During 2005 Focus had success with Jim Jarmusch's Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner Broken Flowers (starring Lost in Translation's Bill Murray), The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and Pride and Prejudice, with Keira Knightly. December saw the release of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, a drama based on an Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys who carry on a decades-long gay love affair despite their outwardly straight lifestyles. The $14 million film won numerous awards on the film festival circuit and became a surprise crossover hit, earning more than $60 million in a carefully platformed release that hit 2,000 screens by February 2006. Though marketed in a low-key way as a simple love story, the subject matter sparked controversy in some quarters, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rating the film "Morally Offensive" and a multiplex in Utah refusing to show it due to the theme alone (no explicit sex was shown). In March the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which had nominated it for eight Oscars, awarded the film three, for best director, adapted screenplay, and score. Focus also had been nominated for four awards apiece for The Constant Gardener and Pride and Prejudice, making it the most-nominated studio of the year.
In just four years Focus Features had become one of the top names in the specialty film business. Its leaders, including the multitasking co-president, James Schamus, had established relationships with key directors, including Ang Lee, and with the powerful backing of NBC Universal the firm's continuing success appeared likely.
Rogue Pictures; Focus International, Inc.
Miramax Film Corporation; Sony Pictures Classics; Paramount Classics; Fox Searchlight Pictures; Warner Independent Pictures; United Artists Corporation; Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation; Picturehouse.
- Key Dates
- 1991 Good Machine is founded by James Schamus and Ted Hope; October Films is founded.
- 1992 Gramercy Pictures is founded.
- 1997 Good Machine International is created for foreign sales under David Linde.
- 1999 USA Films is formed from October, Gramercy, and other PolyGram units.
- 2002 Good Machine and USA merge to create Focus, headed by Schamus and Linde.
- 2004 Rogue Pictures is formed to release action, sci-fi, and urban features.
- 2005 Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is released to strong critical and audience response.
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