James Schamus
Credit: George Pimentel/Getty Images

In a move that completely changes the personality of Focus Features, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley announced yesterday that Peter Schlessel will take over for longtime CEO James Schamus. The 54-year-old Schamus co-founded the company in 2001 and built a reputation for Focus as a home for mature prestige pictures like Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moonrise Kingdom, and Lost in Translation. Schamus was a New Yorker who also taught film at Columbia University, and he was as much identified with his impeccable taste as his trademark bow-tie. Ted Hope, Schamus’ former colleague at Good Machine, tweeted, “To me this really means the end of indie film — as we once knew it… Schamus = superstar.”

Schlessel, a former Sony exec, had been founder and CEO of FilmDistrict, which itself will be absorbed by the new, revamped Focus Features. At FilmDistrict, he’d produced movies like Looper, Drive, and Insidious: Chapter 2, and Universal is turning to him “to maximize its potential by including a greater variety of movies on Focus Features’ film slate.”

“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,” Langley said in Universal’s announcement.

Basically, Universal wants more films and less-boutique-y films from the new Focus, which has six films this year, including The Place Beyond the Pines, Admission, and the upcoming Dallas Buyers Club; Universal is aiming to increase production to 10 Focus features per year. Focus’ New York office will be closed, with Schlessel setting up shop in Los Angeles.

According to reports, Schamus may have suspected a change was coming when Langley was recently promoted to chairman of Universal. But the root of the parting might have been planted all the way back to March 2012 when Universal and Focus won a bidding war for the film rights to Fifty Shades of Grey, a project that never felt like a Schamus joint. Early on, there were rumors that Ang Lee and Joe Wright — two of Schamus’ favorite directors — were in the running to helm the adaptation of E L James’ erotic bestseller, but Sam Taylor-Johnson ultimately landed the gig. Since Fifty Shades is such an enormous project for Universal — one that Langley had been personally involved in acquiring — the studio may have decided it needed someone better suited for the material and for marketing it. Universal, Focus, and Schamus refused to comment on the executive changes.

Schamus will stay on until Jan. 1, and it remains unclear how the transition might impact the promotion and Oscar campaign for Dallas Buyers Club, a project that Schamus championed. “It’s been an amazing and joyous run at Focus, where our love of film has always been matched by our love and respect for our filmmakers and for each other,” he said in a statement.

Schamus, who often works with Lee and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as The Ice Storm, will now focus on developing their next collaboration, “an epic look at the boxing world of the 1960s and 1970s, seen through the prism of its biggest rivalries and greatest fights, including the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali showdown known as the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’”

[Correction: an earlier version of this story credited Schamus with co-writing Brokeback Mountain. He actually produced the film; Larry McMurtry and Dianna Ossana co-wrote that script.]

Dallas Buyers Club
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