As Focus Features evolves, an appreciation

Film is an art but it’s also a business and the writing may well have been on the wall for Focus Features. It hurts, but it seems the rule is you don’t get to crank out that kind of an art house run and live too long to tell the tale. Indie/dependent divisions have been shuttering left and right for years. We lost Paramount Vantage. We lost Warner Independent. Sony Classics is the success model, 20 years strong, having figured something out. Fox Searchlight continues to find pay dirt, too. But they’re the exceptions. We should be so lucky that we got Focus for as long as we did.

But by the way, Focus Features isn’t going away. It is simply, by necessity, shifting its reach and identity. Some are writing about it like the sky is falling, like folding in FilmDistrict product and putting Peter Schlessel in charge is an affront. But I think a mixture of specialty and wide releases is a smart approach and, at the end of the day, it might provide an even better opportunity for specialty product to find its way at Focus as some of the other product (in theory) proves more profitable. This is their path, and I’m personally more positive than some of my colleagues.

“The breadth and depth of Peter”s experience in the film business including production, acquisitions, distribution and most recently running FilmDistrict, will be a tremendous asset to Focus Features as the company broadens its portfolio beyond the production and distribution of specialty product,” Universal Chairman Donna Langley said via press release. “Peter is one of the most talented executives in the industry and I”m confident that under his leadership, Focus will become even more of a force as the specialty film business continues to evolve.”

That last bit is key, it seems. What is a “specialty film” in this day and age? Is it really marked by prestige and/or a higher brow? I’m not so sure.

Meanwhile — and not that the occasion necessarily calls for a remembrance of Focus’ best work, since this isn’t a eulogy — it’s worth remembering the kind of exemplary films James Schamus was able to shepherd in his time there. The whole company was the result of a series of mergers, from October Films to Good Machine to Gramercy Pictures, all staying afloat during the turbulent ownership shifts at Universal in the 1990s, a period I paid attention to as I came into my own appreciation of film. Everything leading up to the big coming out of “The Pianist” in 2002 was exceptional, men like Schamus and Ted Hope and Bingham Ray and David Linde building something that would become a platform for what Focus would be.

Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama was a major success, debuting at Cannes, and those of us following the race, and aware of the company’s success through USA Films and previous incarnations, knew it would be formidable in the fall. It went on to win three Oscars for Best Director, Best Actor (Adrian Brody) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” was also part of that first year as Focus proper.

Over time, it wasn’t as if the company stuck strictly with the high brow, but a culture was cultivated. The greatest of them: Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution,” Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and, just this year, Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

You can (and should) stretch it back to USA Films to include Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy,” Stephen Daldry’s “Billy Elliot,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park.” Over that span of time, 89 Oscar nominations, 22 of them winners. The Best Picture nominees were “The Pianist,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Atonement,” “Milk” and “A Serious Man,” but the company never pulled one of those in, losing most infamously in 2005 to “Crash.” They’ll try for another notch this year with Jean-Marc Vallée’s exceptional “Dallas Buyers Club.”

It’s a staggering run, but it’s not going away. The ax hasn’t dropped. The division is adapting, and it should be, I think, celebrated for that. Survival is the endgame, after all, and if you manage a slate like that over 10 or 15 years, then you’ve made a significant mark.

Focus Features is not dead, but nevertheless, long live Focus Features.